is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860

Author(s):Horwitz, Morton J.
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred B.

Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History

Morton J. Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977. xvii + 356 pp.

Review Essay by Winifred B. Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts University.

When the Rules Changed: A Twenty-five Year Retrospective on The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860

“In short, the transition periods can be described as periods of controlled social and economic revolution. They are revolutions because they involve rapid changes in long-standing economic, social, and often political institutions; they are controlled in that the integrity of the societies is maintained despite prolonged internal conflicts.”(Kuznets, 1968, p. 107)

In 1926, when J. Franklin Jameson published The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, the American Revolution was not generally considered to have been a social movement at all. So much less wrenching than its French or Russian prototype, ours seemed to be a colonial war, not a class war; a war about “Who shall rule?” — not a revolution; for — recalling Carl Becker’s famous phrase — with respect to “Who shall rule at home?” nothing much appeared to have changed. But in the seventy-five years since Jameson, historians have compiled abundant evidence that fundamental change took place after the Revolution in virtually every economic, political and social indicator, from market integration to marital fertility, from agricultural productivity to religious affiliation, from the nature of the polity to financial markets, from literacy rates to life expectancy, and most of all in that elusive thing the French call mentalit?. Those changes constituted a ‘transformation’ beyond mere ‘change.’

‘Change’ is continuous. It is the condition of being in a world where “Whirl is King.”1 But the transformation of American private law that Morton Horwitz describes here “lifted pencil off paper.”2. After the Revolution, the legal reasoning that governed judge-made law in America could cut itself free from that ‘undiscovered country’ from which the English common law traced its origins and drew its enormous authority; from its rigid pleadings; from its “blind veneration for ancient rules, maxims, and precedents” (p. 25); from its neglect of societal consequences. More to the point, it was a discontinuity that paralleled the sudden acceleration of capitalist development and the new “era of shared ideation” that legitimated it.3

Horwitz is not alone in remarking a critical period in the law in and around the 1780s. For Roscoe Pound, the early years of the Republic were “the formative era of American law,” although he seems thoroughly to have rejected the notion, so central to Horwitz, of an ideological discontinuity at that time. “Tenacity of a taught legal tradition,” he wrote, “is much more significant in our legal history than the economic conditions of time and place”(Pound, p. 82).4 But in William E. Nelson’s telling, “The War of Independence ushered in the beginning of a new legal and social order . . . the most important element [of which] was the emergence of new legal doctrines that recognized the materialism of the age” (Nelson, p. 5). And Lawrence Friedman, author of the first general history of American law, describes a “fundamental change in the concept of law” after the Revolution, one in which “the primary function of law was … to be a utilitarian tool [protecting] property in motion or at risk rather than property secure and at rest . . . [in order] to foster growth [and] to release and harness the energy latent in the commonwealth” (Friedman, p. 100).

The Transformation of American Law became an instant classic upon its publication in 1977. Readers not already familiar with it should understand that it is a flagship work of the Critical Legal Studies movement which was born and bred in American law schools in the aftermath of the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. From that anguished, profoundly anti-institutional perspective, the book mounts a brilliant attack on the transformation of the private law of property, negligence, contract, competition, and commerce that was wrought in the state courts — quite to the exclusion, incidentally, of state legislatures. Decision by decision, treatise by treatise, state court judges of the revolutionary generation began the process of making new law and new legal rules in the form and substance of which Horwitz discerns a coherence to which he gives the name ‘instrumentalism.’

Horwitz’s use of the word “instrumental” is an important clue to his thesis. The dictionary definition of ‘instrumental’ is simply “helpful; serving as a means,” in which sense the word could apply equally well — could it not? — to the eighteenth-century English common law which just because it was based on precedent, was biased in favor of the status quo, was indifferent to social consequences and was resistant to change, was ‘instrumental’ insofar as it preserved order in a society that valued order above all things. It is clear, then, that Horwitz uses the word ‘instrumental’ in a heightened sense to mean reshaping private law so that it may serve as “a creative instrument for directing men’s energy toward social change” (p. 1). To effect social change within a common law tradition inherently biased against change required a transformation not only of legal rules but of the role of judge-made law in the society. Courts shed their passivity, to the point of assuming a quasi-legislative role. Early nineteenth century judges understood — Coase to the contrary notwithstanding — that legal rules do matter, that “different sets of legal rules would have differential effects on economic growth, depending both on the distribution of wealth they produced and the level of investment they encouraged” (p. xvii, note).


Property Law

The property-rights emphasis in the New Institutional Economic History makes knowing what property rights _are_ a matter of importance, what they _were_ a matter of greater importance, and that they are not what they were, and why, of greater importance still. The substance of Horwitz’s argument begins with property law the transformation of which ran parallel to a transformation in the conception of property itself, from an estate to be tranquilly enjoyed (in the eighteenth century), to a resource to be productively employed (in the nineteenth). The rubric of property law included riparian and other water-power rights, tenant rights, and the law of ‘waste.’ Eminent domain, nuisance, negligence, and damages fall under this rubric as well, but rules changes in those areas figured so conspicuously as subsidies to growth sectors in the economy that Horwitz treats them as such in a separate category.

Land use in the eighteenth century was constrained within two legal maxims that seem at first glance to check each other, but in fact were mutually reinforcing. On one hand stood Blackstone’s definition of private property rights as absolute: “the sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world in total exclusion of the rights of any other individual in the universe.” On the other stood the ancient common law principle in which property rights appear to be conditional: sic utere tuo, ut alienum non laedas, ‘so use yours that others be not harmed’. But far from mitigating the despotism of A’s dominion, sic utere extended it, for it conferred on A the power to prevent any use by B of his own land that disturbed A’s quiet enjoyment.

Property law would have to change to accommodate the nineteenth century, and it was with respect to rights in the use of water that judges, “listening to the future,” began the transformation. Two iconic cases, Merritt v. Parker (New Jersey, 1795) and Palmer v. Mulligan (New York, 1805) defined the era. Both are riparian rights cases in which a new user constructed a mill upstream or downstream of a prior user, obstructing, diverting, diminishing the flow of water or back-flooding the land. In 1795 the plaintiff won on the common law principle of aqua currit et debet currere, ‘water runs and ought to run.’ In 1805 the defendant won on efficiency grounds: that “explicit consideration of the relative efficiencies of conflicting property uses should be the paramount test of what constitutes legally justifiable injury” (p. 38). On the cusp of the new century the rules of the game had changed.

Palmer v. Mulligan may have been the tipping point that Horwitz tells us it was, but in fact it was challenged, Horwitz tells us, by other judges and by Joseph Angell in his treatise on watercourses. As late as 1827, in Tyler v. Wilkinson, the much-esteemed Justice Story of Massachusetts attacked the Palmer decision as “unjust.” His rejection of the ‘efficiency’ and ‘balancing’ standards that had been determining in Palmer “spawned a line of decisions opposed to all diversion or obstruction of water regardless of any beneficial consequences, [and] marks the nineteenth-century high point in articulating the traditional conception of property that had already come under attack” (p. 39, emphasis mine). In another watercourse case, Cary v. Daniels (1844), Chief Justice Shaw “stated a legal doctrine strikingly different from Story’s earlier formulation [in Palmer]” (p. 41). Judge Morton came down on the other side of Story on the Charles River Bridge’s claim of prescriptive rights. The reader, then, is tempted to ask which — Palmer or Tyler? Story or Angell or Morton or Story? — correctly caught the spirit of the age? Could Horwitz be accused, here and indeed throughout, of selection bias in the judicial opinions upon which he chose to hang his argument? In the age of waterpower there must have been hundreds of riparian rights cases in state courts all over the country.5 How much and how wide was the difference of opinion among sitting state court judges on each of the pivotal issues that made new law? By what process did one opinion become regnant, diffuse, and become new law? Had Horwitz wanted to construct an operationally testable hypothesis, these are the questions, I should have thought, with which he would have dealt. It is early in this review to make this point, but it should, I think, be made.

If ‘for example’ is not proof, neither is it irrelevant to a proof. If the “professional historians and other nonlegally-trained scholars” for whom The Transformation of American Law was written (p. x) are persuaded by it, it will be in large part because of the sheer weight of the evidence, the enormous amount of corroborating testimony with which Horwitz has illuminated a critical juncture in the history of ideas in America.


Mill Acts

The reinterpretation of eighteenth-century Mill Acts provided another opportunity for nineteenth-century courts to shed the neutrality with which the common law had clothed them and overtly to take sides in the “sacrifice of ‘old’ property for the benefit of the ‘new'” (p. 63). “Under the Mill Acts, an owner of a mill situated on any non-navigable stream was permitted to raise a dam and permanently flood the land of all his neighbors, without seeking prior permission” (p. 48). Mill Acts had been enacted by provincial legislatures as early as 1713 to privilege colonial gristmills on the ground that they were private enterprises exercising a public function. This gave the floodings something of the character of a taking in eminent domain. A jury set the height of the dam, the time of the flooding, and the compensation. In return for the remedies provided in the Acts, the plaintiffs relinquished their common law right to sue for trespass, for punitive damages, for nuisance, or to seek an injunction. But in 1827, the Massachusetts court extended to textile, paper, and saw mills, unaffected with any public interest, the same privileges and immunities, allowing them “virtually unlimited discretion to destroy the value of lands far in excess of any benefit they might possibly receive,” while at the same time to “escape damages entirely by showing that the irrigation benefits the plaintiff received from having his lands over-flowed more than outweighed any injury he had incurred” (pp. 50-51). A sterner lesson could be drawn from this but for the fact that the Mill Acts, in response to public outrage, were repealed in 1830.


Eminent Domain

Immediately after the Revolution, the “release of energy” that Willard Hurst would teach us to associate with the buoyant business of settling Wisconsin, could already be felt in the ambitious infrastructure projects being undertaken in the East. At such a time, “the most potent legal weapon” in the quiver of an instrumental jurisprudence is the power of eminent domain. Late in his book, Horwitz says of its potential to take and redistribute wealth that it was “the one truly explosive legal ‘time bomb’ in all antebellum law” (p. 259). That a State should have such a power inheres in the principle of sovereignty itself. Under English law, all who hold land do so at the sufferance of the Sovereign. Under U.S. law, where sovereignty resides in the whole people represented by the states, those states possess “unlimited power”(p. 65) to take private property for public use — even, in the case of railroads, to take private property for private use. The argument has gone even further: even to take private property for private use without compensation, for (argued counsel for the railroads) any limitation of the power of eminent domain is a limitation of sovereignty (p. 65). And, indeed, until the ratification of the fourteenth amendment carried the Bill of Rights to the States, the clause of the Fifth Amendment that reads, “nor shall private property be taken for any public use without just compensation” bound only the Congress. Most state constitutions had no such provision even as late as 1820.

Aware, as they always were, that the ad hoc outcomes of eminent domain cases could set precedents that would impact significantly upon the cost of future development projects across the continent, the courts became involved in eminent domain takings only when disputes arose over compensation. How, for example, should the land be valued? By the current owner’s purchase price? By its current price? By its estimated future price given the trend rate of growth of population and land prices? Or by speculating as to its value after the projected construction has secured its market access? Any one of these, even the most generous, could have a perverse outcome: in one of the many cases involving abutters injured by the diversion of water during construction of the Erie Canal, compensation was denied entirely on the ground that the “general increase in land values and access to markets” that might arise as a consequence of the Canal was sufficient remedy (p. 69).

And how should the consequential destruction of property be compensated? In the Erie Canal cases, the court exempted consequential injuries from liability, and never did make clear the grounds on which it did so. Horwitz suggests five: ? the risk of consequential damage was already discounted in the price originally paid for the land; ? the threat of appropriation by the state was already discounted in the price originally paid for the land; ? the injury was damnum absque injuria, (defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “a loss which does not give rise to an action for damages against the person causing it,” just something to be borne “as part of the price to be paid for the advantages of the social condition”); ? the injury resulted from a breach of contract that could not have been anticipated; ? the injury was entirely predictable, but it is not clear who should bear the cost. In the event, “Landowners whose property values were impaired without compensation in effect were compelled to underwrite a portion of economic development”(p. 70).



The question of who should bear the cost also lies at the center of the negligence doctrine. The issues in negligence law have attracted considerable attention, not only because it is “the largest item of business on the civil side of the nation’s trial courts,” but also because Richard Posner’s well-known analysis of appellate-level determinations in cases of railroad and street railway accidents launched the field of Law and Economics (Posner, p. 29). In that exhaustive study, Posner tested his hypothesis that sitting justices aimed to set damage awards in such a way as to ‘make the market work'; that is, “to bring about an efficient level of accidents and safety” (Posner, p. 34). “The only recognized basis for invoking the legal process to shift an accident loss from the victim to another party is the expectation of improving the efficiency of resource use.” If, as a result of an accident, the magnitude of the loss, L, weighted by the probability or forseeability of it happening, a, is less than the cost, C, of preventing it, then economic welfare requires that the injurer not assume the costs of prevention. The injurer — it was so often the railroad — would do better, both for itself and with respect to maximizing some social welfare function, to assume liability and pay full damages to the victim rather than incur the cost of installing guard-rails, fences, gates and bells at every cross-road, automatic coupling devices, fire extinguishers, etc. to prevent further accidents. The observed behavior of judges confirmed Posner’s proposition. But his data are for the period 1875-1905, leaving room for Horwitz’s discussion of the prior history of negligence to make an important contribution.

He traces the stages in the evolution of the negligence standard from the an eighteenth-century action for nuisance in which the defendant was held strictly liable; to nonfeasance or failure to perform a duty required by law or by contract; to carelessness, as in collisions between non-contracting strangers, where the joint-ness of the act makes causation (and therefore liability) difficult to determine; to contributory negligence where the assumption of the plaintiff’s complicity can defeat his claim against the defendant; to a standard, used in railroad and bridge collapse cases, where there is a defendant at fault but no liability on the rule that “injury brought about by risk-producing activity was itself no ground for imposing legal liability” (p. 97); and finally: to the use of the negligence standard as an instrument of social change. Judges, says Horwitz, were “encouraged to regard themselves as social engineers and legislators, whose decisions to impose liability were influenced by broader considerations of social policy” (p. 88). The rule governing the outcomes in Posner’s sample would, I should think, fit here.

In order to immunize new forms of enterprise against the huge costs of strict liability, the watering-down of negligence doctrine provided a significant subsidy to the dynamic edge of the American economy.6 As in the case of tariffs on British textiles, it is fair to ask, was this subsidy necessary? If it was, it should have been done, says Horwitz, through (progressive) taxation rather than through changing legal rules — a criticism he makes throughout. There are interests of substantive justice as well as of law at stake here, and, as should be clear by now, Horwitz has taken sides. “The increasingly ruthless application of the private law negligence principle . . . became a leading means by which the dynamic and growing forces in American society were able to challenge and eventually overwhelm the weak and relatively powerless segments of the American economy” (p. 99).



Contract law may be the area respecting which the nineteenth-century transformation of American law was at once most thoroughgoing and most relevant to the concerns of modern economic history. ‘Thoroughgoing’ in that, as Horwitz tells it (and he tells it with passion and eloquence), after the Revolution contract law was torn root and branch from its origins in equitable conceptions of substantive justice, inherent fairness and objective value, and given over, entire, “to articulate the ‘will theory’ with which American doctrinal writers expressed the ideology of a market economy in the early nineteenth century” (p. 185). ‘Relevant’ in that economic historians have in recent years appropriated from contract law the whole apparatus of modern contract theory — implicit contracts, incomplete contracts, principal-agent interactions, internal labor markets, and the implications of all these for the boundaries of the firm and the transacting that takes place within them. (See for example, Hart (1995), Holmstrom and Robert (1998), and Rosen (1985).)

Evidence of the shift from “the old learning” (that contractual obligation derives “from the inherent justice or fairness of an exchange”) to the new (that contractual obligation shall reside solely in “the convergence of the wills of the contracting parties”) (p. 160) was made manifest as early as 1790 in the first legal action to acknowledge expectation damages. With the emergence of financial markets, “the function of contracts correspondingly shifted from that of simply transferring title to a specific item to that of ensuring an expected return” (p. 161, emphasis mine). Price could no longer be thought of as a stable, objective, customary, absolute measure of value when it was in the very instability of prices that gains were to be made and losses from foregone gains sustained. Henceforth the courts would acknowledge that it is “the consent of the parties alone that fixes the just price of any thing, without reference to the nature of things themselves, or to their intrinsic value” (p. 160).

It is curious to see the extent to which, in this telling, eighteenth-century legal rules are made to rest upon the foundation of intrinsic or objective value. To borrow Calvin’s devastating comment on free will: “What end could it answer to decorate a thing so diminutive with a title so superb?” There could have been little, if any, experience of price stability in the lives of this generation of judges. They had lived through the extreme price volatility of 1720-40, the simultaneous circulation of several paper currencies denominating several sets of prices with only an arbitrary relation to one another, the steady depreciation of each colony’s silver currency on the British pound sterling, and the spectacle of the Continental vanishing daily. ‘Objective value’ must have been less a ‘foundation’ than an “instrumental conception” in the service of a static social order. In light of the dominant place Horwitz gives throughout his book to this shift from objective to subjective value, one might almost say that the emergence of a market economy had a more profound impact upon the law than it had upon the real economy.

The consequential link between subjective value and the will theory of contract is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the emergence of caveat emptor and the triumph of express over implied contracts. Whereas the most important aspect of the eighteenth-century conception of exchange had been an equitable limitation of contractual obligation if the underlying exchange were unfair, under modern will theory contractual obligation was bounded entirely by the ‘meeting of minds’ as expressed in the contract. The existence of informational asymmetries, even if establishing the inherent inequality of the parties, would no longer invalidate a contract as unfair. No provision of the contract — having been “created by it alone” (p. 182) — could be other than that expressly agreed to, even if the terms of that agreement contravened rules of law. And thus, by 1825, “the chasm” (p. 186) between express and implied contracts had emerged. The bench’s treatment of nineteenth-century labor contracts would make that chasm a bitterly contested terrain.

Applying the will theory to labor contracts The whole corpus of contract theory today is based on the recognition that it is impossible to write a complete contract. “It is simply too difficult to anticipate all the many things that may happen … [I]t is clear that revisions and renegotiations will take place. In fact, the contract is best seen as providing a suitable backdrop or starting point for such renegotiations rather than specifying the final outcome … [Both parties] are looking for a contract that will ensure that, whatever happens, each side has some protection, both against opportunistic behaviour by the other party and against bad luck” (Hart, p. 2). To interpret and enforce a contract as ‘entire’ that even under the best of circumstances is incomplete, enlists something beyond legal rules; it enlists the sympathies of the judges. Horwitz’s thesis, of course, is that the sympathies of nineteenth-century judges were, by this time, allied to commerce and industry and quite orthogonal to labor’s interests. The judicial zeitgeist, having “destroyed most substantive grounds for evaluating the justice of exchange” (p. 201), reified in its stead “the momentary intention of the parties” (p. 196).

Based on the doctrine that “an express contract bars an action in quantum meruit,” laborers who quit on a long-term contract were barred from recovering wages for time served. “In no case,” said the court in Stark v. Parker (Massachusetts 1824), “has a contract in the terms of the one under consideration been construed by practical men to give a right to demand the agreed compensation before the performance of the labor, … it would be a flagrant violation of the first principles of justice to hold it otherwise” (Karsten, p. 170). This precedent stood, with only one “solitary challenge” — Britton v. Turner (New Hampshire 1834) — until the 1870s.7 Horwitz strikingly underscores his point by presenting a parallel case: while laborers were denied recovery, building contractors who quit on an express contract were allowed to recover, both in quantum meruit for labor services and in quantum valebant for materials used (Hayward v. Leonard (Massachusetts 1828). “While the judges who adhered to the distinction between labor and building contracts never acknowledged an economic or social policy behind the distinction, it seems to be,” says Horwitz, “an important example of class bias” (p. 188).

Horwitz has been sharply taken to task for his analysis of labor contracts, and the critics have come at him from all sides, disputing both the benign class relations he attributes to the eighteenth century and the exploitative class relations he attributes to the nineteenth century. Peter Karsten (1997) and Robert J. Steinfeld (1991) are among those who have re-examined these issues in recent years. Karsten disputes Horwitz’s allegation of discrimination in the contrast between Stark v. Parker and Hayward v. Leonard. “I identified some sixty-eight ‘contractor’ cases in American courts,” he writes, “and found very little difference between the ways that courts treated ‘contractors’ and other workers. Contractors fared no better, no worse, than laborers in suits to recover in quantum meruit (and quantum valebant)” (Karsten, p. 186).

And as to the implication that the eighteenth-century common law was more equitable, more just, less punitive, and less coercive than judge-made law in the nineteenth, Karsten responds, “One searches in vain for an idyllic past in the history of British labor law” (Karsten, p. 159). Karsten and Steinfeld both sketch the sorry chronicle of over 550 years of oppressive English labor legislation and jurisprudence, from the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) to the Master-Servant law (which lasted, amended, from 1747 to 1875), during which quitting on a contract not only forfeited wages, but was prosecuted as criminal theft of the master’s property in his servant’s labor. The servant was brought before a magistrate and punished with “wage abatement, imprisonment, and whipping” (Karsten, p. 159), “and a fine largely exceeding the amount of his wages” (Steinfeld, p. 151). “As late as 1875 about two thousand agricultural laborers were still being convicted and imprisoned each year for leaving or threatening to leave their employers” (Karsten, p. 160). In his most recent book, I understand that Steinfeld has found 10,000 such prosecutions each year.

In defense of nineteenth-century American labor law, by contrast, “no one even imagined that [laborers] might be compelled to serve out their time. … Direct coercion would not be permitted, but legally sanctioned economic compulsion would. And this,” says Steinfeld, “made perfect sense. It comported with the emerging model of labor that left to the laborer the formal decision whether to stay or to go” (Steinfeld, pp.150-51).

Our interest as economic historians in the judicial enforcement of these contracts is in their labor-market consequences, for it is upon mobile resources and minimal transaction costs that the efficiency of a labor market depends. In his article on negligence theory, Posner had remarked “the affinity between economic market and common law adjudication as methods of allocating resources” (Posner, p. 75). What efficiency argument justifies the employer’s capture of the worker’s wages? The productivity-enhancing consequences of coercive discipline? But in Clark’s (1994) model of factory discipline it was enough that the worker ‘hired’ the coercive boss; he did not have to forfeit all his earnings to pay him. Then, did the employer need to be compensated by the worker for the savings he must now forgo on search costs, implicit contracting, labor hoarding, and lock-in that had motivated the annual contract in the first place? If so, the loss to the worker should vary inversely, rather than directly, with time worked.

The most plausible explanation is, of course, the deterrent effect. But in my own research on contract labor on Massachusetts farms, 1750-1865, where the quit rate was about ten percent of hires, the account books of the employing farmers showed that in no case were earnings withheld (Rothenberg, p. 207). America’s most ‘peculiar institution’ may not have been plantation slavery — after all, almost every agrarian society designs institutions to constrain the mobility of its labor force — but the genuinely free labor on New England farms.

But with this elegiac insertion from my own work I have broken the mood of Horwitz’s book, which at this point is utterly bleak. With the transformation of contract, having “neutralized” substantive justice, objective values, the power of juries, earlier protective or regulatory doctrines, and moral duties, “judges and jurists could no longer ascribe any purpose to legal obligations that were superior to the expressed ‘will’ of the parties. As contract ideology thus emasculated all prior conceptions of substantive justice, [the patently false assumption of] equal bargaining power inevitably became established as the inarticulate major premise of all legal and economic analysis. The circle was complete; the law had come simply to ratify those forms of inequality that the market system produced” (p. 210). The “affinity” between law and economics that Posner had remarked in 1875, Horwitz has found at least a generation earlier.


The Development of Commercial Law: Negotiability, Marine Insurance, Usury

While the responsibility for the transformation of most areas of private law fell upon (or was appropriated by) the state courts, the development of a body of commercial law — having to do with negotiability, usury, and marine insurance — was the preserve of the federal judiciary. Of these areas, negotiability, which lay at the heart of all commercial relations, presented the most difficult contradictions with the common law for it intruded upon the privity of contract.

Ideally, full negotiability requires that endorsed notes “should circulate as freely as money,” which, if one thinks about what money is, means that a subsequent innocent holder of the note “might depend on payment, regardless of any unknown defects in the obligation arising out of the original transaction between distant parties” (p. 213). To illustrate, following Horwitz: A, debtor to B, can be sued by C to whom B had transferred A’s note, even if no understanding had passed between A and C. And if C had endorsed the note over to D not knowing that A had defaulted, D could sue B, a prior endorser. Most crucial — and this is what distinguishes fully negotiable instruments from assignments — suppose A has already paid the note to B; the courts will protect D, an innocent purchaser of the instrument, from the assumption of any risk arising from B’s attempts to defend himself against D’s suit. It was with respect to this last particular that the state courts, particularly in Massachusetts, balked, until the federal court overruled them in 1809, thereby taking the first step in creating a general commercial law. For Horwitz this step was doubly important: it established full negotiability, and it deposited commercial disputes in the jurisdiction of the federal courts, thereby taking them from the “uncongenial anti-commercial environment often found (sic!) in state courts” (p. 252).

Marine insurance in the eighteenth century had been operated out of taverns, inns, and coffee-houses, by merchants and shipowners for their mutual protection; “it had never been intended for profit” (p. 227). Each voyage was a unique event; each transaction was personal; only extraordinary perils at sea were covered; and the underwriters held themselves strictly liable in all cases, unless it could be proved that the ship was unseaworthy, or an agent was negligent (called ‘barratry’).

Sometime during the remarkably fruitful period 1790-1820 came “the gradual acceptance of what we might call an actuarial conception of social risk … a social consciousness that comes to conceive of a greater and greater portion of activity as appropriately within the realm of chance” (p. 228). With the chartering in the 1790s of incorporated insurance companies with large pools of capital, marine insurance law — like bankruptcy and negligence law — devolved upon an actuarial conception of insurable risks. Losses were no longer unique events, but were predictable according to a probability distribution calculated on the experience of hundreds of voyages. Unseaworthiness and barratry were no longer bars to recovery against the insurance companies; moral responsibility became attenuated, and while the risks of moral hazard increased, insurance companies protected themselves by requiring a variety of warranties and representations any breach of which would defeat recovery. For example, “any deviation from the stipulated route of a marine voyage would void a policy even without a showing that it had increased the risk of loss” (p. 231).

“The ultimate triumph of a market ideology” (p. 241) was the movement to abolish usury laws. It is noteworthy, however, that by the Civil War, seven states still voided usurious contracts, penalizing them with fines and/or forfeiture of principal, and every state except California maintained some regulation over the legal rate of interest (p. 243), but by 1860, “it was no longer possible to recapture an earlier and more coherent system of premarket morality” (p. 245) in the context of which this lingering survivor of the ‘just price’ any longer made sense.



As economic historians have been made increasingly aware of legal institutions, if not by Ronald Coase then by Douglass North, no one, I think, any longer doubts that they are intimately related to economic development. But can we understand that relationship without positing a direction of causation? For Horwitz, the transformation of American law after the Revolution appears to have been so thoroughgoing, so deliberate, so willed that it is possible to read him as suggesting that the causation might actually have run counter-intuitively: from legal change to economic change, from pro-entrepreneurial judges to instrumental legal rules; from instrumental legal rules to the institutions of corporate capitalism. And now, twenty-five years after The Transformation of American Law, the theoretical work currently being done by Andrei Shleifer, Robert Vishny, Edward Glaeser, Daron Acemoglu, and other New Political Economists can be read as suggesting that such a thing is not only possible, but a direction worth pursuing in the development field. (See for example, Glaeser and Shleifer, forthcoming.)

Horwitz is not a Luddite. His target is not the process of economic development per se. It is that the courts appropriated so much of the process, and by so doing effected the transformation by obiter dicta rather than by legislation; by changing legal rules rather than by accommodating conflicting interests; by debt- and equity-financing rather than by progressive taxation. It is that, as a consequence, “growth was subsidized by victims of the process” (p. xvi).

Much of Horwitz’s argument depends on his belief that something precious was lost in the passing of the eighteenth century. Objective value, just price, equitable standards, fair contracts, symmetrical information, implied contracts, substantive justice, compensated takings, strict liability: the furniture of “the heavenly city of the eighteenth century.” It can all be compressed into one of his sentences, the belief “that unequal bargaining power was an illegitimate form of duress” (p. 184).

As the book moves through the antebellum period and the lineaments of the transformation harden in place, Horwitz’s own deeply moral commitment to humane values becomes increasingly engaged. The rhetoric grows angrier, the sarcasm more difficult to conceal. It makes this wonderful book exciting to read, but more problematic. One hates – I hate — to disagree with him.


1. Becker (1932), p. 15, quoting Aristophanes. The full quote is “Whirl is king, having deposed Zeus.” 2. The phrase is from Gerschenkron (1968). 3. The phrase is from Nelson (1975). 4. Pound goes on to say, “Today national law schools, teaching law, not laws, and teaching law in the ‘spirit of the common legal heritage of English-speaking people’, are working effectively to preserve this uniformity, against many forces of disintegration” (p. 83). 5. Riparian rights are property rights to the banks of non-navigable waterways, i.e., of waterways not subject to the ebb and flow of the tides, and to the waters up to the mid-point of the stream. 6. Subsidy? Posner replies, “It is true that if you move from a regime where railroads are strictly liable for injuries inflicted in cross accidents to one where they are liable only if negligent, the costs to the railroads of crossing accidents will be lower, and the output of railroad service probably greater as a consequence. But it does not follow that any subsidy is involved — unless it is proper usage to say that an industry is being subsidized whenever a tax levied upon it is reduced or removed” (Posner, p. 30). 7. Karsten has an extended discussion of Britton v. Turner on pp. 157-82. Apparently it was not at all a “solitary” case; it was “hotly debated” in many state courts, and “before the Civil War had ended, five states had adopted the Britton v. Turner standard” (p. 175). Others had recognized it as more equitable but so radical as to require a legislative rather than judicial initiative.


Becker, Carl L., 1932. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Clark, Gregory, 1994. “Factory Discipline.” Journal of Economic History 54 (1), pp. 128-163.

Friedman, Lawrence M., 1973. A History of American Law. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gerschenkron, Alexander, 1968. Continuity in History and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glaeser, Edward and Andrei Shleifer, forthcoming. “Legal Origins,” Quarterly Journal of Economics .

Hart, Oliver, 1995. Firms, Contracts and Financial Structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holmstrom, Bengt and John Robert, 1998. “The Boundaries of the Firm Revisited.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12 (4), pp. 73-94.

Jameson, J. Franklin Jameson, 1926. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Karsten, Peter, 1997. Heart versus Head: Judge-Made Law in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kuznets, Simon, 1968. “Reflections on Economic Growth,” in Toward a Theory of Economic Growth. New York: W.W. Norton.

Nelson, William E., 1975. The Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change on Massachusetts Society, 1760-1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Posner, Richard A., 1972. “A Theory of Negligence.” Journal of Legal Studies 29, pp. 29-96.

Pound, Roscoe, 1938. The Formative Era of American Law. Gloucester: Peter Smith.

Rosen, Sherwin, 1985. “Implicit Contracts: A Survey.” Journal of Economic Literature 23 (3), pp. 1144-75.

Rothenberg, Winifred, 1992. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Steinfeld, Robert J., 1991. The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Winnie Rothenberg is Associate Professor of Economics at Tufts University. She is the author of From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and of a number of articles in Journal of Economic History, one of which, published in 1981, won the Arthur H. Cole Prize for best article. She has served as Vice President of the Economic History Association and as a member of its Board of Trustees.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Century of the Leisured Masses: Entertainment and the Transformation of Twentieth-Century America

Author(s):Surdam, David George
Reviewer(s):Hanssen, F. Andrew

Published by EH.Net (October 2015)

David George Surdam, Century of the Leisured Masses: Entertainment and the Transformation of Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press. xviii + 305 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-021157-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by F. Andrew Hanssen, Department of Economics, Clemson University.

Economist David Surdam takes on an enormous task: To explore what leisure is and how it has changed, both in conception and fact, over the last hundred years or so. He not only draws liberally on the work by his fellow economists, but copiously cites research and writings by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and social commentators of various orders. For a scholar contemplating research in the field of leisure, the bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. Anecdotes abound, many tremendously interesting. The author is very good at explaining the economic issues, when economic issues arise.

The book’s biggest weakness is that the author makes no overarching argument and advances no particular thesis (despite a title inspired by Thorstein Veblen, Veblen’s work comes up only briefly, most interestingly in a preface by economist Ken McCormick). Rather, the author appears content to recount what others have said. This can yield gems: Many of the quotes from long forgotten books and articles are priceless (like the commentator addressing the worry about all those washing machines sitting around idle). But the result is a disjointed work. Topics appear and disappear, sometimes to reappear again and sometimes not. There is too much repetition.

The author begins in Chapter 1 with an attempt to define leisure, and returns to the task from time-to-time throughout the book. Leisure is voluntary, and presumably unpaid. But is unpaid, voluntary time in the classroom leisure? How about paid but well-enjoyed tennis matches? How about mowing the lawn on the weekend? And where do “unhealthy” activities, like drinking or drug taking, or consuming pornography fit in? Indeed, Surdam’s attempt to define leisure brings to mind Potter Stewart’s famous comment about pornography, with the difference that leisure is hard to know even when one when one sees it.

Chapter 2 examines changing attitudes towards leisure, a topic that provides some of the most entertaining anecdotes in the book. Or should I say, unchanging attitudes? It is clear that from the dawn of time (or at least from the early twentieth century) leisure has generated two pressing fears: 1) that the quantity of it is “wrong” (usually there is too much; occasionally there is too little), and, 2) that whatever leisure there is, it is being badly used. The consistency with which these two points come up is quite striking; whether talking about the working class and their nickelodeons, black Americans and their jazz clubs, or teenagers and their drive-ins (to name just a few), things are going to the dogs! The author trots out a number of predictably ponderous and very amusing quotes about the problem du jour. I’m going to stop worrying so much about my daughter’s iPad.

Chapter 3 provides a reasonably good discussion of the economics of leisure, and the effect of rising incomes on leisure taken, both in amount and form. In Chapter 4, the author describes how leisure has evolved over time. The perhaps unsurprising bottom line is that time taken for leisure has increased and leisure activities have become more varied. In Chapter 5, he reviews expenditure on leisure, using annual data from the Census Bureau. Not surprisingly, he finds that spending rose as the twentieth century progressed. His analysis of the changing mix of spending is mostly anecdotal. Chapter 6 is a somewhat rambling discussion that seeks to contrast the leisure activities of the young and the old. The chapter is a grab bag of topics that includes comic books, jazz and rock-and-roll, the “swinging bachelor” of 1950s fame, and the leisure activities of African Americans. (As always, the fear of badly used leisure rears its ugly head.) Chapter 7 looks at trends in public health, and appears only tangentially related to leisure. Chapter 8 contains a very interesting discussion of how jobs went from dirty and dangerous to clean and safe to downright pleasant. The discussion illustrates how hard it is to draw a bold line between work and leisure — as one bats a volleyball across a net with fellow employees on the campus of a Silicon Valley high tech firm, is one recreating or working? It would have been nice to see the author explore that line of argument more thoroughly; for example, do farmers have very little leisure — they are constantly busy — or a whole lot? (One might ask the same thing about economics professors as they conduct their research!)

Chapter 9 focuses on the household, and illustrates the book’s strength and weaknesses in microcosm. It has an interesting starting point: the change in technology, social mores and so forth that gave rise to a massive increase in female labor force participation. It provides an intelligent review of the labor-leisure tradeoff in the context of household work. It presents some basic data in tables, and discusses cogently empirical analyses conducted by a number of researchers, mostly economists. Descriptions of how arduous many household tasks were in former days are fascinating, and the discussion of technological advances that changed things is interesting. I particularly enjoyed the author’s recounting of the debate over whether women used the time freed up for more leisure or to expand the set of household “chores.” But since there is no overarching theme, and no particular argument being made, it is hard to say what it all adds up to.

Chapter 10 begins to address the industries of mass leisure. The author provides good brief histories of amusement parks, saloons and cabarets, music, and theater and vaudeville. But it once again has a grab-bag feel. A paragraph on radio is followed by a paragraph on phonographs is followed by a paragraph on 45 rpm records and rock-and-roll. Chapter 11 continues with movies, sports, radio, and television. Chapter 12 covers the rise of mass transport, electricity, automobiles, the suburbs, and air conditioning. Chapter 13 briefly discusses the role of government in the leisure business, while Chapter 14 reviews antitrust cases involving music, movies, television, and professional sports. Surdam ends with an epilogue, in which he recounts that — guess what? — people are worried about how leisure is being used! There is nothing new under the sun.

I found the book great fun to dip in and out of. For example, in writing this review, I opened the book at five random points, and came up with: 1) a discussion of the “affable” Puritans; 2) Thomas Sowell’s views on acculturation; 3) the recounted astonishment of a 1959 Life magazine journalist who discovers that “the amount spent on dogs is equal to all the salaries and fees paid on legal services”; 4) a discussion of nineteenth century rag pickers; and 5) a description of how Vaudeville houses were established along newly developing New York City subway lines. (The thing I enjoyed most was reading again and again how one set of people deplored another set’s use of leisure.)

As enjoyable as all this is, because it lacks an organizing thesis, the book becomes, for the most part, a recounting of a lot of “stuff.” Thus, as a volume to browse for entertainment, I recommend it. For its terrific bibliography of work on leisure in myriad fields, I heartily endorse it. But as a means to understand mass leisure in the twentieth century, unfortunately, it comes up a bit short.

F. Andrew Hanssen’s publications include “Explaining Changes in Organizational Form: The Case of Professional Baseball” (with J. Meehan and T. Miceli), Journal of Sports Economics (forthcoming) and “Vertical Integration during the Hollywood Studio Era,” Journal of Law and Economics (2010).

Copyright (c) 2015 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Gallamore, Robert E.
Meyer, John R.
Reviewer(s):Brown, John Howard

Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

Robert E. Gallamore and John R. Meyer, American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. xiii + 506 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-72564-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net John Howard Brown, Department of Finance and Economics, Georgia Southern University.

This book presents a historical overview of the American railroad industry through the course of the twentieth century.  The central thesis of the volume is that many of the ills suffered by the rail mode in this century were a product of the regulatory environment they faced.  In particular, in the post-World War II environment where highway transportation became an increasingly effective alternative to both freight and passenger rail service, regulation hampered effective responses by rail firms.  In the early 1970s the rigor mortis induced by regulation combined with the collapse of manufacturing in the Northeastern region of the United States thrust much of the rail capacity in the region into bankruptcy.  Salvation was delivered to the rail industry by the Staggers Act of 1980 which dramatically broadened the scope of business decisions that railroads could make without regulatory monitoring.  This thesis will be uncontroversial for economists and business historians who have studied the industry and particularly its post-1980 resurgence.

The first chapter is a paean to the “Enduring American Railroads.”  The second chapter discusses the ills of regulation in the context of the peculiar economics of the rail industry.  Curiously, given the pivotal role which sunk costs have assumed in economic theories of competition over the last forty years, the term is unmentioned in the text and index, even though the first topic discussed in the chapter is whether railroads are natural monopolies.  Since the expense of roadbed and right-of-way are both substantial and sunk, entry into a market is quite difficult where an incumbent is established, since they have already sunk their costs.  The incumbent can credibly threaten to force rates below average costs making entry unprofitable.  This dynamic often leads to monopoly.  Where entry actually occurs, the alternative is often “destructive competition” featuring rates that cannot recover the full costs of service.  A railroad’s system is thus often a checkerboard of competitive and monopolized routes.  This very characteristic of railways was responsible for attempts to regulate the industry in the nineteenth century, culminating in the Interstate Commerce Act.  The chapter concludes with a box laying out Ten Principles of Transportation Economics.  These are uncontroversial in themselves.  However, they do not offer so much as a hint of the role of sunk costs.

The third chapter summarizes the history of government control of railroads in the first half of the twentieth century.  The authors divide this era into three sub-periods: the antitrust episode, the period of direct government operation, and the period following the Transportation Act of 1920.  The antitrust episode was initiated by the Northern Securities case and represented a strike against what was viewed as excessive concentration of control in the transcontinental roads.  The authors view this episode as ill-conceived since after the Staggers Act of 1980 essentially the same systems were created in a new round of mergers.

The experience of government control during the First World War is in contrast reviewed positively.  Although it is treated as the product of special circumstances and the peculiarity of the design of the American railroad system, the authors do draw some lessons from the events.  These lessons consisted largely of the virtues of eliminating wasteful duplication of efforts.  This was the same reasoning that J.P. Morgan employed in snuffing out competition in many industries during the 1890s.  After the war, however, the roads were rapidly returned to private control.

This leads to the third epoch of the century where public rail policy was determined by the Transportation Act of 1920.   Official policy favored substantial consolidation of rail systems.  However, consolidation was never achieved.

The fourth chapter purports to examine the role that competition from alternative freight transportation modes played in the evolution of the rail industry.  In fact, the chapter is poorly organized, shifting between transport modes, policy recommendations, and historical eras haphazardly.  Three points stand out regarding the topic of intermodal freight competition.  First, prior to about 1950, waterborne carriage provided a limited competitive check on railroads in some regions of the United States, i.e. the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts; the Great Lakes; and the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri basin.  Next, after 1950, highway transportation and air transport increased competitive pressure on the rail industry in freight markets.  Finally, government policies resulted in substantial subsidies to these alternative modes.  In particular, unlike railroads where right-of-ways are privately owned and maintained, internal waterway improvements, highways, and airports are usually built and maintained at government expense.

The following chapter tells a similar story regarding rail passenger traffic.  Once again, competition from competing modes was ineffectual prior to World War II.  Afterwards, both highways and air travel supplanted railroads in passenger service.  Some of this was attributable to the improved comfort and safety of these modes due to technical improvements, particularly the development of passenger jet aircraft.  Additionally, as was the case for rail freight, the implicit subsidies provided by governmental investments in highways, airports, and the air traffic control system placed the rails at a disadvantage.

The trends related in these two chapters paint a picture of steadily mounting pressure from competing and partially-subsidized modes.  The classic response of railroads to competition has always been deferral of maintenance.  Thus the rail system entered the nineteen sixties with substantial portions of its trackage functionally obsolete or at least in sore need of maintenance.  One possible solution, merger, is the topic of the succeeding chapter.

The sixth chapter discusses the dynamics of railroad mergers during the 1950s and 60s.  As always, public policy makers were ambivalent about the issue of rail consolidation.  Two different approaches to railroad mergers were available.  Parallel mergers joined firms whose route structures were largely overlapping.  On their face, such mergers reduce competition while perhaps reducing costs by elimination of duplicate functions.  End-to-end mergers joined roads which already had a collaborative relationship due to their interchange of freight.  These mergers might improve services available to shippers but were not anticipated to result in substantial cost reductions. Having pointed out that regulators generally opted for parallel and cost saving mergers, even though they threatened to reduce competition, the authors engage in a detailed rehearsal of the details of rail mergers.  The chapter concludes with the wreck of the Penn Central.

The seventh chapter discusses the rather muddled public policy response to the crisis induced by Penn Central’s collapse.  The 1970s featured more Congressional policy making for railroads than any prior decade.  The initial responses in the form of the so-called 3R and 4R bills can be classified as attempts at muddling through.  The most consequential result of these acts was the creation of the United States Railway Administration (USRA).  This body was charged with nothing less than the reorganization of the entire railway system.  The acts also created Conrail, an empty vessel into which the USRA was to pour its reorganization plan.  The Staggers Act concluded the decade with a radical departure from the prior eighty years of American public policy, although it was a logical extension of the deregulatory fervor which seized official Washington and the Carter administration.

The following chapter discusses the Frankenstein creation which was Conrail.  The chain reaction bankruptcies induced by the failed Penn Central merger threatened to exterminate rail freight service throughout much of the northeastern United States.  The creation of Conrail was the ad hoc response to the perceived crisis.  Like Frankenstein’s monster, Conrail took on a life of its own, far outlasting the crisis that birthed it, in the process besting a cabinet secretary determined to privatize it by merger.  Instead, it prospered as an independent, private firm up to the 1990s.

The ninth chapter backtracks chronologically to discuss the development of the Staggers Act and the consequences of deregulation.  Two features of the act were essential: streamlining the process by which railroads could abandon legacy lines that could not achieve economic traffic density and phasing out common carrier obligations.  Class I railroads aggressively pruned their route systems. All railroads took advantage of their newly acquired freedom to enter into private contracts.

The Staggers Act permitted the Interstate Commerce Commission, and its successor, the Surface Transportation Board, to “protect” captive shippers from exploitation by railroads.  The balance of the ninth chapter comprehensively covers the struggles between shippers and railroads over rates which could adequately compensate the railroads without exploiting shippers.  No very satisfactory result was ever achieved in squaring this circle.  Nor is it clear to the authors that any regulatory solution would be desirable.

The tenth chapter takes up the story of the post-Staggers Act consolidation of the U.S. rail industry into five Class I roads and innumerable short lines erected on tracks abandoned by the Class I roads.  The different mergers and their competitive logic (or occasionally lack thereof) are discussed in detail.  One flaw in this chapter is recurrent name dropping about rail executives who are mentioned positively without providing detailed evidence to support the judgments.

The final result of the flurry of mergers was paired duopolies, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific-Southern Pacific west of the Mississippi and Norfolk Southern with CSX in the east.  Kansas City Southern remains an anomaly operating routes predominantly north and south while the other Class I operators’ traffic flows are east to west.  The authors conclude with a report card of the final four.

Chapter eleven returns to passenger rail and the Amtrak experience.  The dilemma of rail passenger service policy is twofold.  On one hand, Congress has sought to have Amtrak succeed on a commercial basis, i.e. cover expenses from passenger revenues.  This policy implies minimal federal subsidies.  However, only a few high-density corridors in the United States, particularly between Boston and Washington and some very large metropolitan areas, could commuter traffic support rail service on such a basis.  Once subsidies are required, the logic of legislative deal making demands passenger routes that can never be successful on a commercial basis in order to build legislative majorities.  For example, Amtrak’s transcontinental routes are not economically viable.

Chapter twelve documents the remarkable technological progressiveness of American railways in the twentieth century despite their not infrequent economic distress.  Broadly speaking two sources of technical progress can be identified, innovations embodied in physical capital and innovations in business practices.  The first is represented for railroads by the replacement of steam locomotives with diesel at mid-century.  The development in the post-Staggers era of the unit train illustrates the second category of technical change.

In addition, some improved technology was developed specifically for railroads, such as the diesel-electric locomotive and improved systems for braking and train control.  Other technologies were generated as a part of the twentieth century’s remarkable technological efflorescence but were readily adapted to the needs of railroads, e.g. computers and communication systems. The cumulative, synergistic effects of these changes was the transformation of a labor- and fuel-intensive industry in the late nineteenth century into an industry of unmatched productivity with respect to both in the early twenty-first.

The thirteenth chapter provides a summing up, consisting of ten propositions regarding the experience of the railroad industry during the twentieth century.  The first is that regulation was hugely damaging to the industry in the first eight decades of the century.  At the same time the authors concede in their second point that railroads represent an industry “affected with the public interest.”  Financial crises and bankruptcy under the competitive pressure from alternative modes constitute their points three through five.  Points six, seven, and ten take up the story of the chaotic 1970s, the belated regulatory reforms, particularly the Staggers Act, and the resurgence the railroads experienced in the final two decades.  Propositions eight and nine cover the notable progress of railway technology and the travails of passenger rail service.  There is nothing to criticize in this summary.  Although, as is too frequently the case, the organization of the presentation leaves something to be desired.

A final chapter closes the book with some observations about further regulatory reforms which might reinforce the current good health of the American rail industry.  They also highlight some post-millennial developments and their implications for the future of the industry.   These recommendations and observations are of particular interest in light of recent proposals of further Class I mergers.

This book is comprehensive and the authors clearly quite knowledgeable.  John Meyer, now deceased, was a professor at Harvard University and Robert Gallamore, was a former student, now retired from the rail industry and teaching at Michigan State University.  However, this book disappoints.  The authors have chosen a narrative structure that is neither fish nor fowl.  The chapter organization is largely topical.  However, the organization of the topics follows an imperfect chronological ordering.  The internal organization of chapters leaves much to be desired also, since they tend to leap from subject to subject with little connective logic.

The book appears also to suffer from sloppy editing.  Thus in one chapter we read that, “no comparable period in U.S. history had less success in actual railroad consolidations than the forty-year span, 1920 to 1940” (p. 66).  In several other places, tables displaying economic values over substantial time periods are reported in nominal, rather than real terms (see Figure 5.1, p. 121 and Figure 11.2, p. 333).  The latter figure distorts the levels of support Amtrak has received over its lifetime by understating subsidies in the 1970s and overstating the subsidies of the twenty-first century.

In summary, this book imperfectly fills the need for a comprehensive historical treatment of the American railroad industry in the last century.  Given the inherent interest and importance of the subject, this is unfortunate.

John Howard Brown is an Associate Professor of Economics in the Department of Finance and Economics at Georgia Southern University.  His article, “The ‘Railroad Problem’ and the Interstate Commerce Act” was published in a special issue of the Review of Industrial Organization on the 125th anniversary of the Interstate Commerce Act.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

English Poor Laws

George Boyer, Cornell University

A compulsory system of poor relief was instituted in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Although the role played by poor relief was significantly modified by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Crusade Against Outrelief of the 1870s, and the adoption of various social insurance programs in the early twentieth century, the Poor Law continued to assist the poor until it was replaced by the welfare state in 1948. For nearly three centuries, the Poor Law constituted “a welfare state in miniature,” relieving the elderly, widows, children, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed and underemployed (Blaug 1964). This essay will outline the changing role played by the Poor Law, focusing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Origins of the Poor Law

While legislation dealing with vagrants and beggars dates back to the fourteenth century, perhaps the first English poor law legislation was enacted in 1536, instructing each parish to undertake voluntary weekly collections to assist the “impotent” poor. The parish had been the basic unit of local government since at least the fourteenth century, although Parliament imposed few if any civic functions on parishes before the sixteenth century. Parliament adopted several other statutes relating to the poor in the next sixty years, culminating with the Acts of 1597-98 and 1601 (43 Eliz. I c. 2), which established a compulsory system of poor relief that was administered and financed at the parish (local) level. These Acts laid the groundwork for the system of poor relief up to the adoption of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Relief was to be administered by a group of overseers, who were to assess a compulsory property tax, known as the poor rate, to assist those within the parish “having no means to maintain them.” The poor were divided into three groups: able-bodied adults, children, and the old or non-able-bodied (impotent). The overseers were instructed to put the able-bodied to work, to give apprenticeships to poor children, and to provide “competent sums of money” to relieve the impotent.

Deteriorating economic conditions and loss of traditional forms of charity in the 1500s

The Elizabethan Poor Law was adopted largely in response to a serious deterioration in economic circumstances, combined with a decline in more traditional forms of charitable assistance. Sixteenth century England experienced rapid inflation, caused by rapid population growth, the debasement of the coinage in 1526 and 1544-46, and the inflow of American silver. Grain prices more than tripled from 1490-1509 to 1550-69, and then increased by an additional 73 percent from 1550-69 to 1590-1609. The prices of other commodities increased nearly as rapidly — the Phelps Brown and Hopkins price index rose by 391 percent from 1495-1504 to 1595-1604. Nominal wages increased at a much slower rate than did prices; as a result, real wages of agricultural and building laborers and of skilled craftsmen declined by about 60 percent over the course of the sixteenth century. This decline in purchasing power led to severe hardship for a large share of the population. Conditions were especially bad in 1595-98, when four consecutive poor harvests led to famine conditions. At the same time that the number of workers living in poverty increased, the supply of charitable assistance declined. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-40, followed by the dissolution of religious guilds, fraternities, almshouses, and hospitals in 1545-49, “destroyed much of the institutional fabric which had provided charity for the poor in the past” (Slack 1990). Given the circumstances, the Acts of 1597-98 and 1601 can be seen as an attempt by Parliament both to prevent starvation and to control public order.

The Poor Law, 1601-1750

It is difficult to determine how quickly parishes implemented the Poor Law. Paul Slack (1990) contends that in 1660 a third or more of parishes regularly were collecting poor rates, and that by 1700 poor rates were universal. The Board of Trade estimated that in 1696 expenditures on poor relief totaled £400,000 (see Table 1), slightly less than 1 percent of national income. No official statistics exist for this period concerning the number of persons relieved or the demographic characteristics of those relieved, but it is possible to get some idea of the makeup of the “pauper host” from local studies undertaken by historians. These suggest that, during the seventeenth century, the bulk of relief recipients were elderly, orphans, or widows with young children. In the first half of the century, orphans and lone-parent children made up a particularly large share of the relief rolls, while by the late seventeenth century in many parishes a majority of those collecting regular weekly “pensions” were aged sixty or older. Female pensioners outnumbered males by as much as three to one (Smith 1996). On average, the payment of weekly pensions made up about two-thirds of relief spending in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; the remainder went to casual benefits, often to able-bodied males in need of short-term relief because of sickness or unemployment.

Settlement Act of 1662

One of the issues that arose in the administration of relief was that of entitlement: did everyone within a parish have a legal right to relief? Parliament addressed this question in the Settlement Act of 1662, which formalized the notion that each person had a parish of settlement, and which gave parishes the right to remove within forty days of arrival any newcomer deemed “likely to be chargeable” as well as any non-settled applicant for relief. While Adam Smith, and some historians, argued that the Settlement Law put a serious brake on labor mobility, available evidence suggests that parishes used it selectively, to keep out economically undesirable migrants such as single women, older workers, and men with large families.

Relief expenditures increased sharply in the first half of the eighteenth century, as can be seen in Table 1. Nominal expenditures increased by 72 percent from 1696 to 1748-50 despite the fact that prices were falling and population was growing slowly; real expenditures per capita increased by 84 percent. A large part of this rise was due to increasing pension benefits, especially for the elderly. Some areas also experienced an increase in the number of able-bodied relief recipients. In an attempt to deter some of the poor from applying for relief, Parliament in 1723 adopted the Workhouse Test Act, which empowered parishes to deny relief to any applicant who refused to enter a workhouse. While many parishes established workhouses as a result of the Act, these were often short-lived, and the vast majority of paupers continued to receive outdoor relief (that is, relief in their own homes).

The Poor Law, 1750-1834

The period from 1750 to 1820 witnessed an explosion in relief expenditures. Real per capita expenditures more than doubled from 1748-50 to 1803, and remained at a high level until the Poor Law was amended in 1834 (see Table 1). Relief expenditures increased from 1.0% of GDP in 1748-50 to a peak of 2.7% of GDP in 1818-20 (Lindert 1998). The demographic characteristics of the pauper host changed considerably in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the rural south and east of England. There was a sharp increase in numbers receiving casual benefits, as opposed to regular weekly pensions. The age distribution of those on relief became younger — the share of paupers who were prime-aged (20- 59) increased significantly, and the share aged 60 and over declined. Finally, the share of relief recipients in the south and east who were male increased from about a third in 1760 to nearly two-thirds in 1820. In the north and west there also were shifts toward prime-age males and casual relief, but the magnitude of these changes was far smaller than elsewhere (King 2000).

Gilbert’s Act and the Removal Act

There were two major pieces of legislation during this period. Gilbert’s Act (1782) empowered parishes to join together to form unions for the purpose of relieving their poor. The Act stated that only the impotent poor should be relieved in workhouses; the able-bodied should either be found work or granted outdoor relief. To a large extent, Gilbert’s Act simply legitimized the policies of a large number of parishes that found outdoor relief both less and expensive and more humane that workhouse relief. The other major piece of legislation was the Removal Act of 1795, which amended the Settlement Law so that no non-settled person could be removed from a parish unless he or she applied for relief.

Speenhamland System and other forms of poor relief

During this period, relief for the able-bodied took various forms, the most important of which were: allowances-in-aid-of-wages (the so-called Speenhamland system), child allowances for laborers with large families, and payments to seasonally unemployed agricultural laborers. The system of allowances-in-aid-of-wages was adopted by magistrates and parish overseers throughout large parts of southern England to assist the poor during crisis periods. The most famous allowance scale, though by no means the first, was that adopted by Berkshire magistrates at Speenhamland on May 6, 1795. Under the allowance system, a household head (whether employed or unemployed) was guaranteed a minimum weekly income, the level of which was determined by the price of bread and by the size of his or her family. Such scales typically were instituted only during years of high food prices, such as 1795-96 and 1800-01, and removed when prices declined. Child allowance payments were widespread in the rural south and east, which suggests that laborers’ wages were too low to support large families. The typical parish paid a small weekly sum to laborers with four or more children under age 10 or 12. Seasonal unemployment had been a problem for agricultural laborers long before 1750, but the extent of seasonality increased in the second half of the eighteenth century as farmers in southern and eastern England responded to the sharp increase in grain prices by increasing their specialization in grain production. The increase in seasonal unemployment, combined with the decline in other sources of income, forced many agricultural laborers to apply for poor relief during the winter.

Regional differences in relief expenditures and recipients

Table 2 reports data for fifteen counties located throughout England on per capita relief expenditures for the years ending in March 1783-85, 1803, 1812, and 1831, and on relief recipients in 1802-03. Per capita expenditures were higher on average in agricultural counties than in more industrial counties, and were especially high in the grain-producing southern counties — Oxford, Berkshire, Essex, Suffolk, and Sussex. The share of the population receiving poor relief in 1802-03 varied significantly across counties, being 15 to 23 percent in the grain- producing south and less than 10 percent in the north. The demographic characteristics of those relieved also differed across regions. In particular, the share of relief recipients who were elderly or disabled was higher in the north and west than it was in the south; by implication, the share that were able-bodied was higher in the south and east than elsewhere. Economic historians typically have concluded that these regional differences in relief expenditures and numbers on relief were caused by differences in economic circumstances; that is, poverty was more of a problem in the agricultural south and east than it was in the pastoral southwest or in the more industrial north (Blaug 1963; Boyer 1990). More recently, King (2000) has argued that the regional differences in poor relief were determined not by economic structure but rather by “very different welfare cultures on the part of both the poor and the poor law administrators.”

Causes of the Increase in Relief to Able-bodied Males

What caused the increase in the number of able-bodied males on relief? In the second half of the eighteenth century, a large share of rural households in southern England suffered significant declines in real income. County-level cross-sectional data suggest that, on average, real wages for day laborers in agriculture declined by 19 percent from 1767-70 to 1795 in fifteen southern grain-producing counties, then remained roughly constant from 1795 to 1824, before increasing to a level in 1832 about 10 percent above that of 1770 (Bowley 1898). Farm-level time-series data yield a similar result — real wages in the southeast declined by 13 percent from 1770-79 to 1800-09, and remained low until the 1820s (Clark 2001).


Some historians contend that the Parliamentary enclosure movement, and the plowing over of commons and waste land, reduced the access of rural households to land for growing food, grazing animals, and gathering fuel, and led to the immiseration of large numbers of agricultural laborers and their families (Hammond and Hammond 1911; Humphries 1990). More recent research, however, suggests that only a relatively small share of agricultural laborers had common rights, and that there was little open access common land in southeastern England by 1750 (Shaw-Taylor 2001; Clark and Clark 2001). Thus, the Hammonds and Humphries probably overstated the effect of late eighteenth-century enclosures on agricultural laborers’ living standards, although those laborers who had common rights must have been hurt by enclosures.

Declining cottage industry

Finally, in some parts of the south and east, women and children were employed in wool spinning, lace making, straw plaiting, and other cottage industries. Employment opportunities in wool spinning, the largest cottage industry, declined in the late eighteenth century, and employment in the other cottage industries declined in the early nineteenth century (Pinchbeck 1930; Boyer 1990). The decline of cottage industry reduced the ability of women and children to contribute to household income. This, in combination with the decline in agricultural laborers’ wage rates and, in some villages, the loss of common rights, caused many rural household’s incomes in southern England to fall dangerously close to subsistence by 1795.

North and Midlands

The situation was different in the north and midlands. The real wages of day laborers in agriculture remained roughly constant from 1770 to 1810, and then increased sharply, so that by the 1820s wages were about 50 percent higher than they were in 1770 (Clark 2001). Moreover, while some parts of the north and midlands experienced a decline in cottage industry, in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire the concentration of textile production led to increased employment opportunities for women and children.

The Political Economy of the Poor Law, 1795-1834

A comparison of English poor relief with poor relief on the European continent reveals a puzzle: from 1795 to 1834 relief expenditures per capita, and expenditures as a share of national product, were significantly higher in England than on the continent. However, differences in spending between England and the continent were relatively small before 1795 and after 1834 (Lindert 1998). Simple economic explanations cannot account for the different patterns of English and continental relief.

Labor-hiring farmers take advantage of the poor relief system

The increase in relief spending in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was partly a result of politically-dominant farmers taking advantage of the poor relief system to shift some of their labor costs onto other taxpayers (Boyer 1990). Most rural parish vestries were dominated by labor-hiring farmers as a result of “the principle of weighting the right to vote according to the amount of property occupied,” introduced by Gilbert’s Act (1782), and extended in 1818 by the Parish Vestry Act (Brundage 1978). Relief expenditures were financed by a tax levied on all parishioners whose property value exceeded some minimum level. A typical rural parish’s taxpayers can be divided into two groups: labor-hiring farmers and non-labor-hiring taxpayers (family farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans). In grain-producing areas, where there were large seasonal variations in the demand for labor, labor-hiring farmers anxious to secure an adequate peak season labor force were able to reduce costs by laying off unneeded workers during slack seasons and having them collect poor relief. Large farmers used their political power to tailor the administration of poor relief so as to lower their labor costs. Thus, some share of the increase in relief spending in the early nineteenth century represented a subsidy to labor-hiring farmers rather than a transfer from farmers and other taxpayers to agricultural laborers and their families. In pasture farming areas, where the demand for labor was fairly constant over the year, it was not in farmers’ interests to shed labor during the winter, and the number of able-bodied laborers receiving casual relief was smaller. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 reduced the political power of labor-hiring farmers, which helps to account for the decline in relief expenditures after that date.

The New Poor Law, 1834-70

The increase in spending on poor relief in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, combined with the attacks on the Poor Laws by Thomas Malthus and other political economists and the agricultural laborers’ revolt of 1830-31 (the Captain Swing riots), led the government in 1832 to appoint the Royal Commission to Investigate the Poor Laws. The Commission published its report, written by Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick, in March 1834. The report, described by historian R. H. Tawney (1926) as “brilliant, influential and wildly unhistorical,” called for sweeping reforms of the Poor Law, including the grouping of parishes into Poor Law unions, the abolition of outdoor relief for the able-bodied and their families, and the appointment of a centralized Poor Law Commission to direct the administration of poor relief. Soon after the report was published Parliament adopted the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which implemented some of the report’s recommendations and left others, like the regulation of outdoor relief, to the three newly appointed Poor Law Commissioners.

By 1839 the vast majority of rural parishes had been grouped into poor law unions, and most of these had built or were building workhouses. On the other hand, the Commission met with strong opposition when it attempted in 1837 to set up unions in the industrial north, and the implementation of the New Poor Law was delayed in several industrial cities. In an attempt to regulate the granting of relief to able-bodied males, the Commission, and its replacement in 1847, the Poor Law Board, issued several orders to selected Poor Law Unions. The Outdoor Labour Test Order of 1842, sent to unions without workhouses or where the workhouse test was deemed unenforceable, stated that able-bodied males could be given outdoor relief only if they were set to work by the union. The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 prohibited outdoor relief for both able-bodied males and females except on account of sickness or “sudden and urgent necessity.” The Outdoor Relief Regulation Order of 1852 extended the labor test for those relieved outside of workhouses.

Historical debate about the effect of the New Poor Law

Historians do not agree on the effect of the New Poor Law on the local administration of relief. Some contend that the orders regulating outdoor relief largely were evaded by both rural and urban unions, many of whom continued to grant outdoor relief to unemployed and underemployed males (Rose 1970; Digby 1975). Others point to the falling numbers of able- bodied males receiving relief in the national statistics and the widespread construction of union workhouses, and conclude that the New Poor Law succeeded in abolishing outdoor relief for the able-bodied by 1850 (Williams 1981). A recent study by Lees (1998) found that in three London parishes and six provincial towns in the years around 1850 large numbers of prime-age males continued to apply for relief, and that a majority of those assisted were granted outdoor relief. The Poor Law also played an important role in assisting the unemployed in industrial cities during the cyclical downturns of 1841-42 and 1847-48 and the Lancashire cotton famine of 1862-65 (Boot 1990; Boyer 1997). There is no doubt, however, that spending on poor relief declined after 1834 (see Table 1). Real per capita relief expenditures fell by 43 percent from 1831 to 1841, and increased slowly thereafter.

Beginning in 1840, data on the number of persons receiving poor relief are available for two days a year, January 1 and July 1; the “official” estimates in Table 1 of the annual number relieved were constructed as the average of the number relieved on these two dates. Studies conducted by Poor Law administrators indicate that the number recorded in the day counts was less than half the number assisted during the year. Lees’s “revised” estimates of annual relief recipients (see Table 1) assumes that the ratio of actual to counted paupers was 2.24 for 1850- 1900 and 2.15 for 1905-14; these suggest that from 1850 to 1870 about 10 percent of the population was assisted by the Poor Law each year. Given the temporary nature of most spells of relief, over a three year period as much as 25 percent of the population made use of the Poor Law (Lees 1998).

The Crusade Against Outrelief

In the 1870s Poor Law unions throughout England and Wales curtailed outdoor relief for all types of paupers. This change in policy, known as the Crusade Against Outrelief, was not a result of new government regulations, although it was encouraged by the newly formed Local Government Board (LGB). The Board was aided in convincing the public of the need for reform by the propaganda of the Charity Organization Society (COS), founded in 1869. The LGB and the COS maintained that the ready availability of outdoor relief destroyed the self-reliance of the poor. The COS went on to argue that the shift from outdoor to workhouse relief would significantly reduce the demand for assistance, since most applicants would refuse to enter workhouses, and therefore reduce Poor Law expenditures. A policy that promised to raise the morals of the poor and reduce taxes was hard for most Poor Law unions to resist (MacKinnon 1987).

The effect of the Crusade can be seen in Table 1. The deterrent effect associated with the workhouse led to a sharp fall in numbers on relief — from 1871 to 1876, the number of paupers receiving outdoor relief fell by 33 percent. The share of paupers relieved in workhouses increased from 12-15 percent in 1841-71 to 22 percent in 1880, and it continued to rise to 35 percent in 1911. The extent of the crusade varied considerably across poor law unions. Urban unions typically relieved a much larger share of their paupers in workhouses than did rural unions, but there were significant differences in practice across cities. In 1893, over 70 percent of the paupers in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and in many London Poor Law unions received indoor relief; however, in Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle, Nottingham and several other industrial and mining cities the majority of paupers continued to receive outdoor relief (Booth 1894).

Change in the attitude of the poor toward relief

The last third of the nineteenth century also witnessed a change in the attitude of the poor towards relief. Prior to 1870, a large share of the working class regarded access to public relief as an entitlement, although they rejected the workhouse as a form of relief. Their opinions changed over time, however, and by the end of the century most workers viewed poor relief as stigmatizing (Lees 1998). This change in perceptions led many poor people to go to great lengths to avoid applying for relief, and available evidence suggests that there were large differences between poverty rates and pauperism rates in late Victorian Britain. For example, in York in 1900, 3,451 persons received poor relief at some point during the year, less than half of the 7,230 persons estimated by Rowntree to be living in primary poverty.

The Declining Role of the Poor Law, 1870-1914

Increased availability of alternative sources of assistance

The share of the population on relief fell sharply from 1871 to 1876, and then continued to decline, at a much slower pace, until 1914. Real per capita relief expenditures increased from 1876 to 1914, largely because the Poor Law provided increasing amounts of medical care for the poor. Otherwise, the role played by the Poor Law declined over this period, due in large part to an increase in the availability of alternative sources of assistance. There was a sharp increase in the second half of the nineteenth century in the membership of friendly societies — mutual help associations providing sickness, accident, and death benefits, and sometimes old age (superannuation) benefits — and of trade unions providing mutual insurance policies. The benefits provided workers and their families with some protection against income loss, and few who belonged to friendly societies or unions providing “friendly” benefits ever needed to apply to the Poor Law for assistance.

Work relief

Local governments continued to assist unemployed males after 1870, but typically not through the Poor Law. Beginning with the Chamberlain Circular in 1886 the Local Government Board encouraged cities to set up work relief projects when unemployment was high. The circular stated that “it is not desirable that the working classes should be familiarised with Poor Law relief,” and that the work provided should “not involve the stigma of pauperism.” In 1905 Parliament adopted the Unemployed Workman Act, which established in all large cities distress committees to provide temporary employment to workers who were unemployed because of a “dislocation of trade.”

Liberal welfare reforms, 1906-1911

Between 1906 and 1911 Parliament passed several pieces of social welfare legislation collectively known as the Liberal welfare reforms. These laws provided free meals and medical inspections (later treatment) for needy school children (1906, 1907, 1912) and weekly pensions for poor persons over age 70 (1908), and established national sickness and unemployment insurance (1911). The Liberal reforms purposely reduced the role played by poor relief, and paved the way for the abolition of the Poor Law.

The Last Years of the Poor Law

During the interwar period the Poor Law served as a residual safety net, assisting those who fell through the cracks of the existing social insurance policies. The high unemployment of 1921-38 led to a sharp increase in numbers on relief. The official count of relief recipients rose from 748,000 in 1914 to 1,449,000 in 1922; the number relieved averaged 1,379,800 from 1922 to 1938. A large share of those on relief were unemployed workers and their dependents, especially in 1922-26. Despite the extension of unemployment insurance in 1920 to virtually all workers except the self-employed and those in agriculture or domestic service, there still were large numbers who either did not qualify for unemployment benefits or who had exhausted their benefits, and many of them turned to the Poor Law for assistance. The vast majority were given outdoor relief; from 1921 to 1923 the number of outdoor relief recipients increased by 1,051,000 while the number receiving indoor relieve increased by 21,000.

The Poor Law becomes redundant and is repealed

Despite the important role played by poor relief during the interwar period, the government continued to adopt policies, which bypassed the Poor Law and left it “to die by attrition and surgical removals of essential organs” (Lees 1998). The Local Government Act of 1929 abolished the Poor Law unions, and transferred the administration of poor relief to the counties and county boroughs. In 1934 the responsibility for assisting those unemployed who were outside the unemployment insurance system was transferred from the Poor Law to the Unemployment Assistance Board. Finally, from 1945 to 1948, Parliament adopted a series of laws that together formed the basis for the welfare state, and made the Poor Law redundant. The National Assistance Act of 1948 officially repealed all existing Poor Law legislation, and replaced the Poor Law with the National Assistance Board to act as a residual relief agency.

Table 1
Relief Expenditures and Numbers on Relief, 1696-1936

Expend. Real Expend. Expend. Number Share of Number Share of Share of
on expend. as share as share relieved Pop. relieved pop. paupers
Year Relief per capita of GDP of GDP (Official) relieved (Lees) relieved relieved
(£s) 1803=100 (Slack) (Lindert) 1 000s (Official) 1 000s (Lees) indoors
1696 400 24.9 0.8
1748-50 690 45.8 1.0 0.99
1776 1 530 64.0 1.6 1.59
1783-85 2 004 75.6 2.0 1.75
1803 4 268 100.0 1.9 2.15 1 041 11.4 8.0
1813 6 656 91.8 2.58
1818 7 871 116.8
1821 6 959 113.6 2.66
1826 5 929 91.8
1831 6 799 107.9 2.00
1836 4 718 81.1
1841 4 761 61.8 1.12 1 299 8.3 2 910 18.5 14.8
1846 4 954 69.4 1 332 8.0 2 984 17.8 15.0
1851 4 963 67.8 1.07 941 5.3 2 108 11.9 12.1
1856 6 004 62.0 917 4.9 2 054 10.9 13.6
1861 5 779 60.0 0.86 884 4.4 1 980 9.9 13.2
1866 6 440 65.0 916 4.3 2 052 9.7 13.7
1871 7 887 73.3 1 037 4.6 2 323 10.3 14.2
1876 7 336 62.8 749 3.1 1 678 7.0 18.1
1881 8 102 69.1 0.70 791 3.1 1 772 6.9 22.3
1886 8 296 72.0 781 2.9 1 749 6.4 23.2
1891 8 643 72.3 760 2.6 1 702 5.9 24.0
1896 10 216 84.7 816 2.7 1 828 6.0 25.9
1901 11 549 84.7 777 2.4 1 671 5.2 29.2
1906 14 036 96.9 892 2.6 1 918 5.6 31.1
1911 15 023 93.6 886 2.5 1 905 5.3 35.1
1921 31 925 75.3 627 1.7 35.7
1926 40 083 128.3 1 331 3.4 17.7
1931 38 561 133.9 1 090 2.7 21.5
1936 44 379 165.7 1 472 3.6 12.6

Notes: Relief expenditure data are for the year ended on March 25. In calculating real per capita expenditures, I used cost of living and population data for the previous year.

Table 2
County-level Poor Relief Data, 1783-1831

Per capita Per capita Per capita Per capita Share of Percent Share of
relief relief relief relief Percent of Recipients of land in Pop
spending spending spending spending population over 60 or arable Employed
County (s.) (s.) (s.) (s.) relieved Disabled farming in Agric
1783-5 1802-03 1812 1831 1802-03 1802-03 c. 1836 1821
Durham 2.78 6.50 9.92 6.83 9.3 22.8 54.9 20.5
Northumberland 2.81 6.67 7.92 6.25 8.8 32.2 46.5 26.8
Lancashire 3.48 4.42 7.42 4.42 6.7 15.0 27.1 11.2
West Riding 2.91 6.50 9.92 5.58 9.3 18.1 30.0 19.6
Stafford 4.30 6.92 8.50 6.50 9.1 17.2 44.8 26.6
Nottingham 3.42 6.33 10.83 6.50 6.8 17.3 na 35.4
Warwick 6.70 11.25 13.33 9.58 13.3 13.7 47.5 27.9
Oxford 7.07 16.17 24.83 16.92 19.4 13.2 55.8 55.4
Berkshire 8.65 15.08 27.08 15.75 20.0 12.7 58.5 53.3
Essex 9.10 12.08 24.58 17.17 16.4 12.7 72.4 55.7
Suffolk 7.35 11.42 19.33 18.33 16.6 11.4 70.3 55.9
Sussex 11.52 22.58 33.08 19.33 22.6 8.7 43.8 50.3
Devon 5.53 7.25 11.42 9.00 12.3 23.1 22.5 40.8
Somerset 5.24 8.92 12.25 8.83 12.0 20.8 24.4 42.8
Cornwall 3.62 5.83 9.42 6.67 6.6 31.0 23.8 37.7
England & Wales 4.06 8.92 12.75 10.08 11.4 16.0 48.0 33.0


Blaug, Mark. “The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New.” Journal of Economic History 23 (1963): 151-84.

Blaug, Mark. “The Poor Law Report Re-examined.” Journal of Economic History (1964) 24: 229-45.

Boot, H. M. “Unemployment and Poor Law Relief in Manchester, 1845-50.” Social History 15 (1990): 217-28.

Booth, Charles. The Aged Poor in England and Wales. London: MacMillan, 1894.

Boyer, George R. “Poor Relief, Informal Assistance, and Short Time during the Lancashire Cotton Famine.” Explorations in Economic History 34 (1997): 56-76.

Boyer, George R. An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Brundage, Anthony. The Making of the New Poor Law. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1978.

Clark, Gregory. “Farm Wages and Living Standards in the Industrial Revolution: England, 1670-1869.” Economic History Review, 2nd series 54 (2001): 477-505.

Clark, Gregory and Anthony Clark. “Common Rights to Land in England, 1475-1839.” Journal of Economic History 61 (2001): 1009-36.

Digby, Anne. “The Labour Market and the Continuity of Social Policy after 1834: The Case of the Eastern Counties.” Economic History Review, 2nd series 28 (1975): 69-83.

Eastwood, David. Governing Rural England: Tradition and Transformation in Local Government, 1780-1840. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Fraser, Derek, editor. The New Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century. London: Macmillan, 1976.

Hammond, J. L. and Barbara Hammond. The Village Labourer, 1760-1832. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911.

Hampson, E. M. The Treatment of Poverty in Cambridgeshire, 1597-1834. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934

Humphries, Jane. “Enclosures, Common Rights, and Women: The Proletarianization of Families in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of Economic History 50 (1990): 17-42.

King, Steven. Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700-1850: A Regional Perspective. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Lees, Lynn Hollen. The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1770-1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Lindert, Peter H. “Poor Relief before the Welfare State: Britain versus the Continent, 1780- 1880.” European Review of Economic History 2 (1998): 101-40.

MacKinnon, Mary. “English Poor Law Policy and the Crusade Against Outrelief.” Journal of Economic History 47 (1987): 603-25.

Marshall, J. D. The Old Poor Law, 1795-1834. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Routledge, 1930.

Pound, John. Poverty and Vagrancy in Tudor England, 2nd edition. London: Longmans, 1986.

Rose, Michael E. “The New Poor Law in an Industrial Area.” In The Industrial Revolution, edited by R.M. Hartwell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Rose, Michael E. The English Poor Law, 1780-1930. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1971.

Shaw-Taylor, Leigh. “Parliamentary Enclosure and the Emergence of an English Agricultural Proletariat.” Journal of Economic History 61 (2001): 640-62.

Slack, Paul. Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longmans, 1988.

Slack, Paul. The English Poor Law, 1531-1782. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Smith, Richard (1996). “Charity, Self-interest and Welfare: Reflections from Demographic and Family History.” In Charity, Self-Interest and Welfare in the English Past, edited by Martin Daunton. NewYork: St Martin’s.

Sokoll, Thomas. Household and Family among the Poor: The Case of Two Essex Communities in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. Bochum: Universitätsverlag Brockmeyer, 1993.

Solar, Peter M. “Poor Relief and English Economic Development before the Industrial Revolution.” Economic History Review, 2nd series 48 (1995): 1-22.

Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study. London: J. Murray, 1926.

Webb, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. English Poor Law History. Part I: The Old Poor Law. London: Longmans, 1927.

Williams, Karel. From Pauperism to Poverty. London: Routledge, 1981.

Citation: Boyer, George. “English Poor Laws”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. May 7, 2002. URL

The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

One of the most important implications of modern microeconomic theory is that perfectly competitive markets produce an efficient allocation of resources. Historically, however, most markets have not approached the level of organization of this theoretical ideal. Instead of the costless and instantaneous communication envisioned in theory, market participants must rely on a set of incomplete and often costly channels of communication to learn about conditions of supply and demand; and they may face significant transaction costs to act on the information that they have acquired through these channels.

The economic history of labor market institutions is concerned with identifying the mechanisms that have facilitated the allocation of labor effort in the economy at different times, tracing the historical processes by which they have responded to shifting circumstances, and understanding how these mechanisms affected the allocation of labor as well as the distribution of labor’s products in different epochs.

Labor market institutions include both formal organizations (such as union hiring halls, government labor exchanges, and third party intermediaries such as employment agents), and informal mechanisms of communication such as word-of-mouth about employment opportunities passed between family and friends. The impact of these institutions is broad ranging. It includes the geographic allocation of labor (migration and urbanization), decisions about education and training of workers (investment in human capital), inequality (relative wages), the allocation of time between paid work and other activities such as household production, education, and leisure, and fertility (the allocation of time between production and reproduction).

Because each worker possesses a unique bundle of skills and attributes and each job is different, labor market transactions require the communication of a relatively large amount of information. In other words, the transactions costs involved in the exchange of labor are relatively high. The result is that the barriers separating different labor markets have sometimes been quite high, and these markets are relatively poorly integrated with one another.

The frictions inherent in the labor market mean that even during macroeconomic expansions there may be both a significant number of unemployed workers and a large number of unfilled vacancies. When viewed from some distance and looked at in the long-run, however, what is most striking is how effective labor market institutions have been in adapting to the shifting patterns of supply and demand in the economy. Over the past two centuries American labor markets have accomplished a massive redistribution of labor out of agriculture into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing into services. At the same time they have accomplished a huge geographic reallocation of labor between the United States and other parts of the world as well as within the United States itself, both across states and regions and from rural locations to urban areas.

This essay is organized topically, beginning with a discussion of the evolution of institutions involved in the allocation of labor across space and then taking up the development of institutions that fostered the allocation of labor across industries and sectors. The third section considers issues related to labor market performance.

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

One of the dominant themes of American history is the process of European settlement (and the concomitant displacement of the native population). This movement of population is in essence a labor market phenomenon. From the beginning of European settlement in what became the United States, labor markets were characterized by the scarcity of labor in relation to abundant land and natural resources. Labor scarcity raised labor productivity and enabled ordinary Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable Europeans. Counterbalancing these inducements to migration, however, were the high costs of travel across the Atlantic and the significant risks posed by settlement in frontier regions. Over time, technological changes lowered the costs of communication and transportation. But exploiting these advantages required the parallel development of new labor market institutions.

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of labor market institutions developed to facilitate the movement of labor in response to the opportunities created by American factor proportions. While some immigrants migrated on their own, the majority of immigrants were either indentured servants or African slaves.

Because of the cost of passage—which exceeded half a year’s income for a typical British immigrant and a full year’s income for a typical German immigrant—only a small portion of European migrants could afford to pay for their passage to the Americas (Grubb 1985a). They did so by signing contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years in the future—their labor being their only viable asset—with British merchants, who then sold these contracts to colonists after their ship reached America. Indentured servitude was introduced by the Virginia Company in 1619 and appears to have arisen from a combination of the terms of two other types of labor contract widely used in England at the time: service in husbandry and apprenticeship (Galenson 1981). In other cases, migrants borrowed money for their passage and committed to repay merchants by pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, a practice known as “redemptioner servitude (Grubb 1986). Redemptioners bore increased risk because they could not predict in advance what terms they might be able to negotiate for their labor, but presumably they did so because of other benefits, such as the opportunity to choose their own master, and to select where they would be employed.

Although data on immigration for the colonial period are scattered and incomplete a number of scholars have estimated that between half and three quarters of European immigrants arriving in the colonies came as indentured or redemptioner servants. Using data for the end of the colonial period Grubb (1985b) found that close to three-quarters of English immigrants to Pennsylvania and nearly 60 percent of German immigrants arrived as servants.

A number of scholars have examined the terms of indenture and redemptioner contracts in some detail (see, e.g., Galenson 1981; Grubb 1985a). They find that consistent with the existence of a well-functioning market, the terms of service varied in response to differences in individual productivity, employment conditions, and the balance of supply and demand in different locations.

The other major source of labor for the colonies was the forced migration of African slaves. Slavery had been introduced in the West Indies at an early date, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that significant numbers of slaves began to be imported into the mainland colonies. From 1700 to 1780 the proportion of blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from 13 percent to around 40 percent. In South Carolina and Georgia, the black share of the population climbed from 18 percent to 41 percent in the same period (McCusker and Menard, 1985, p. 222). Galenson (1984) explains the transition from indentured European to enslaved African labor as the result of shifts in supply and demand conditions in England and the trans-Atlantic slave market. Conditions in Europe improved after 1650, reducing the supply of indentured servants, while at the same time increased competition in the slave trade was lowering the price of slaves (Dunn 1984). In some sense the colonies’ early experience with indentured servants paved the way for the transition to slavery. Like slaves, indentured servants were unfree, and ownership of their labor could be freely transferred from one owner to another. Unlike slaves, however, they could look forward to eventually becoming free (Morgan 1971).

Over time a marked regional division in labor market institutions emerged in colonial America. The use of slaves was concentrated in the Chesapeake and Lower South, where the presence of staple export crops (rice, indigo and tobacco) provided economic rewards for expanding the scale of cultivation beyond the size achievable with family labor. European immigrants (primarily indentured servants) tended to concentrate in the Chesapeake and Middle Colonies, where servants could expect to find the greatest opportunities to enter agriculture once they had completed their term of service. While New England was able to support self-sufficient farmers, its climate and soil were not conducive to the expansion of commercial agriculture, with the result that it attracted relatively few slaves, indentured servants, or free immigrants. These patterns are illustrated in Table 1, which summarizes the composition and destinations of English emigrants in the years 1773 to 1776.

Table 1

English Emigration to the American Colonies, by Destination and Type, 1773-76

Total Emigration
Destination Number Percentage Percent listed as servants
New England 54 1.20 1.85
Middle Colonies 1,162 25.78 61.27
New York 303 6.72 11.55
Pennsylvania 859 19.06 78.81
Chesapeake 2,984 66.21 96.28
Maryland 2,217 49.19 98.33
Virginia 767 17.02 90.35
Lower South 307 6.81 19.54
Carolinas 106 2.35 23.58
Georgia 196 4.35 17.86
Florida 5 0.11 0.00
Total 4,507 80.90

Source: Grubb (1985b, p. 334).

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American independence marks a turning point in the development of labor market institutions. In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, the use of indentured servitude to finance the migration of European immigrants fell into disuse. As a result, most subsequent migration was at least nominally free migration.

The high cost of migration and the economic uncertainties of the new nation help to explain the relatively low level of immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. But as the costs of transportation fell, the volume of immigration rose dramatically over the course of the century. Transportation costs were of course only one of the obstacles to international population movements. At least as important were problems of communication. Potential migrants might know in a general way that the United States offered greater economic opportunities than were available at home, but acting on this information required the development of labor market institutions that could effectively link job-seekers with employers.

For the most part, the labor market institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century to direct international migration were “informal” and thus difficult to document. As Rosenbloom (2002, ch. 2) describes, however, word-of-mouth played an important role in labor markets at this time. Many immigrants were following in the footsteps of friends or relatives already in the United States. Often these initial pioneers provided material assistance—helping to purchase ship and train tickets, providing housing—as well as information. The consequences of this so-called “chain migration” are readily reflected in a variety of kinds of evidence. Numerous studies of specific migration streams have documented the role of a small group of initial migrants in facilitating subsequent migration (for example, Barton 1975; Kamphoefner 1987; Gjerde 1985). At a more aggregate level, settlement patterns confirm the tendency of immigrants from different countries to concentrate in different cities (Ward 1971, p. 77; Galloway, Vedder and Shukla 1974).

Informal word-of-mouth communication was an effective labor market institution because it served both employers and job-seekers. For job-seekers the recommendations of friends and relatives were more reliable than those of third parties and often came with additional assistance. For employers the recommendations of current employees served as a kind of screening mechanism, since their employees were unlikely to encourage the immigration of unreliable workers.

While chain migration can explain a quantitatively large part of the redistribution of labor in the nineteenth century it is still necessary to explain how these chains came into existence in the first place. Chain migration always coexisted with another set of more formal labor market institutions that grew up largely to serve employers who could not rely on their existing labor force to recruit new hires (such as railroad construction companies). Labor agents, often themselves immigrants, acted as intermediaries between these employers and job-seekers, providing labor market information and frequently acting as translators for immigrants who could not speak English. Steamship companies operating between Europe and the United States also employed agents to help recruit potential migrants (Rosenbloom 2002, ch. 3).

By the 1840s networks of labor agents along with boarding houses serving immigrants and other similar support networks were well established in New York, Boston, and other major immigrant destinations. The services of these agents were well documented in published guides and most Europeans considering immigration must have known that they could turn to these commercial intermediaries if they lacked friends and family to guide them. After some time working in America these immigrants, if they were successful, would find steadier employment and begin to direct subsequent migration, thus establishing a new link in the stream of chain migration.

The economic impacts of immigration are theoretically ambiguous. Increased labor supply, by itself, would tend to lower wages—benefiting employers and hurting workers. But because immigrants are also consumers, the resulting increase in demand for goods and services will increase the demand for labor, partially offsetting the depressing effect of immigration on wages. As long as the labor to capital ratio rises, however, immigration will necessarily lower wages. But if, as was true in the late nineteenth century, foreign lending follows foreign labor, then there may be no negative impact on wages (Carter and Sutch 1999). Whatever the theoretical considerations, however, immigration became an increasingly controversial political issue during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While employers and some immigrant groups supported continued immigration, there was a growing nativist sentiment among other segments of the population. Anti-immigrant sentiments appear to have arisen out of a mix of perceived economic effects and concern about the implications of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between immigrants and the native born.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent legislative efforts to impose further restrictions on immigration passed Congress but foundered on presidential vetoes. The balance of political forces shifted, however, in the wake of World War I. In 1917 a literacy requirement was imposed for the first time, and in 1921 an Emergency Quota Act was passed (Goldin 1994).

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and subsequent legislation culminating in the National Origins Act, the volume of immigration dropped sharply. Since this time international migration into the United States has been controlled to varying degrees by legal restrictions. Variations in the rules have produced variations in the volume of legal immigration. Meanwhile the persistence of large wage gaps between the United States and Mexico and other developing countries has encouraged a substantial volume of illegal immigration. It remains the case, however, that most of this migration—both legal and illegal—continues to be directed by chains of friends and relatives.

Recent trends in outsourcing and off-shoring have begun to create a new channel by which lower-wage workers outside the United States can respond to the country’s high wages without physically relocating. Workers in India, China, and elsewhere possessing technical skills can now provide services such as data entry or technical support by phone and over the internet. While the novelty of this phenomenon has attracted considerable attention, the actual volume of jobs moved off-shore remains limited, and there are important obstacles to overcome before more jobs can be carried out remotely (Edwards 2004).

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

At the same time that American economic development created international imbalances between labor supply and demand it also created internal disequilibrium. Fertile land and abundant natural resources drew population toward less densely settled regions in the West. Over the course of the century, advances in transportation technologies lowered the cost of shipping goods from interior regions, vastly expanding the area available for settlement. Meanwhile transportation advances and technological innovations encouraged the growth of manufacturing and fueled increased urbanization. The movement of population and economic activity from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of the continent and from rural to urban areas in response to these incentives is an important element of U.S. economic history in the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Civil War era, the labor market response to frontier expansion differed substantially between North and South, with profound effects on patterns of settlement and regional development. Much of the cost of migration is a result of the need to gather information about opportunities in potential destinations. In the South, plantation owners could spread these costs over a relatively large number of potential migrants—i.e., their slaves. Plantations were also relatively self-sufficient, requiring little urban or commercial infrastructure to make them economically viable. Moreover, the existence of well-established markets for slaves allowed western planters to expand their labor force by purchasing additional labor from eastern plantations.

In the North, on the other hand, migration took place through the relocation of small, family farms. Fixed costs of gathering information and the risks of migration loomed larger in these farmers’ calculations than they did for slaveholders, and they were more dependent on the presence of urban merchants to supply them with inputs and market their products. Consequently the task of mobilizing labor fell to promoters who bought up large tracts of land at low prices and then subdivided them into individual lots. To increase the value of these lands promoters offered loans, actively encourage the development of urban services such as blacksmith shops, grain merchants, wagon builders and general stores, and recruited settlers. With the spread of railroads, railroad construction companies also played a role in encouraging settlement along their routes to speed the development of traffic.

The differences in processes of westward migration in the North and South were reflected in the divergence of rates of urbanization, transportation infrastructure investment, manufacturing employment, and population density, all of which were higher in the North than in the South in 1860 (Wright 1986, pp. 19-29).

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

Over the course of U.S. economic development technological changes and shifting consumption patterns have caused the demand for labor to increase in manufacturing and services and decline in agriculture and other extractive activities. These broad changes are illustrated in Table 2. As technological changes have increased the advantages of specialization and the division of labor, more and more economic activity has moved outside the scope of the household, and the boundaries of the labor market have been enlarged. As a result more and more women have moved into the paid labor force. On the other hand, with the increasing importance of formal education, there has been a decline in the number of children in the labor force (Whaples 2005).

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

Share in
Year Total Labor Force (1000s) Agriculture Total Manufacturing Services
1800 1,658 76.2 23.8
1850 8,199 53.6 46.4
1900 29,031 37.5 59.4 35.8 23.6
1950 57,860 11.9 88.1 41.0 47.1
1999 133,489 2.3 97.7 24.7 73.0

Notes and Sources: 1800 and 1850 from Weiss (1986), pp. 646-49; remaining years from Hughes and Cain (2003), 547-48. For 1900-1999 Forestry and Fishing are included in the Agricultural labor force.

As these changes have taken place they have placed strains on existing labor market institutions and encouraged the development of new mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of labor. Over the course of the last century and a half the tendency has been a movement away from something approximating a “spot” market characterized by short-term employment relationships in which wages are equated to the marginal product of labor, and toward a much more complex and rule-bound set of long-term transactions (Goldin 2000, p. 586) While certain segments of the labor market still involve relatively anonymous and short-lived transactions, workers and employers are much more likely today to enter into long-term employment relationships that are expected to last for many years.

The evolution of labor market institutions in response to these shifting demands has been anything but smooth. During the late nineteenth century the expansion of organized labor was accompanied by often violent labor-management conflict (Friedman 2002). Not until the New Deal did unions gain widespread acceptance and a legal right to bargain. Yet even today, union organizing efforts are often met with considerable hostility.

Conflicts over union organizing efforts inevitably involved state and federal governments because the legal environment directly affected the bargaining power of both sides, and shifting legal opinions and legislative changes played an important part in determining the outcome of these contests. State and federal governments were also drawn into labor markets as various groups sought to limit hours of work, set minimum wages, provide support for disabled workers, and respond to other perceived shortcomings of existing arrangements. It would be wrong, however, to see the growth of government regulation as simply a movement from freer to more regulated markets. The ability to exchange goods and services rests ultimately on the legal system, and to this extent there has never been an entirely unregulated market. In addition, labor market transactions are never as simple as the anonymous exchange of other goods or services. Because the identities of individual buyers and sellers matter and the long-term nature of many employment relationships, adjustments can occur along other margins besides wages, and many of these dimensions involve externalities that affect all workers at a particular establishment, or possibly workers in an entire industry or sector.

Government regulations have responded in many cases to needs voiced by participants on both sides of the labor market for assistance to achieve desired ends. That has not, of course, prevented both workers and employers from seeking to use government to alter the way in which the gains from trade are distributed within the market.

The Agricultural Labor Market

At the beginning of the nineteenth century most labor was employed in agriculture, and, with the exception of large slave plantations, most agricultural labor was performed on small, family-run farms. There were markets for temporary and seasonal agricultural laborers to supplement family labor supply, but in most parts of the country outside the South, families remained the dominant institution directing the allocation of farm labor. Reliable estimates of the number of farm workers are not readily available before 1860, when the federal Census first enumerated “farm laborers.” At this time census enumerators found about 800 thousand such workers, implying an average of less than one-half farm worker per farm. Interpretation of this figure is complicated, however, and it may either overstate the amount of hired help—since farm laborers included unpaid family workers—or understate it—since it excluded those who reported their occupation simply as “laborer” and may have spent some of their time working in agriculture (Wright 1988, p. 193). A possibly more reliable indicator is provided by the percentage of gross value of farm output spent on wage labor. This figure fell from 11.4 percent in 1870 to around 8 percent by 1900, indicating that hired labor was on average becoming even less important (Wright 1988, pp. 194-95).

In the South, after the Civil War, arrangements were more complicated. Former plantation owners continued to own large tracts of land that required labor if they were to be made productive. Meanwhile former slaves needed access to land and capital if they were to support themselves. While some land owners turned to wage labor to work their land, most relied heavily on institutions like sharecropping. On the supply side, croppers viewed this form of employment as a rung on the “agricultural ladder” that would lead eventually to tenancy and possibly ownership. Because climbing the agricultural ladder meant establishing one’s credit-worthiness with local lenders, southern farm laborers tended to sort themselves into two categories: locally established (mostly older, married men) croppers and renters on the one hand, and mobile wage laborers (mostly younger and unmarried) on the other. While the labor market for each of these types of workers appears to have been relatively competitive, the barriers between the two markets remained relatively high (Wright 1987, p. 111).

While the predominant pattern in agriculture then was one of small, family-operated units, there was an important countervailing trend toward specialization that both depended on, and encouraged the emergence of a more specialized market for farm labor. Because specialization in a single crop increased the seasonality of labor demand, farmers could not afford to employ labor year-round, but had to depend on migrant workers. The use of seasonal gangs of migrant wage laborers developed earliest in California in the 1870s and 1880s, where employers relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Following restrictions on Chinese entry, they were replaced first by Japanese, and later by Mexican workers (Wright 1988, pp. 201-204).

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

Outside of agriculture, at the beginning of the nineteenth century most manufacturing took place in small establishments. Hired labor might consist of a small number of apprentices, or, as in the early New England textile mills, a few child laborers hired from nearby farms (Ware 1931). As a result labor market institutions remained small-scale and informal, and institutions for training and skill acquisition remained correspondingly limited. Workers learned on the job as apprentices or helpers; advancement came through establishing themselves as independent producers rather than through internal promotion.

With the growth of manufacturing, and the spread of factory methods of production, especially in the years after the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of people could expect to spend their working-lives as employees. One reflection of this change was the emergence in the 1870s of the problem of unemployment. During the depression of 1873 for the first time cities throughout the country had to contend with large masses of industrial workers thrown out of work and unable to support themselves through, in the language of the time, “no fault of their own” (Keyssar 1986, ch. 2).

The growth of large factories and the creation of new kinds of labor skills specific to a particular employer created returns to sustaining long-term employment relationships. As workers acquired job- and employer-specific skills their productivity increased giving rise to gains that were available only so long as the employment relationship persisted. Employers did little, however, to encourage long-term employment relationships. Instead authority over hiring, promotion and retention was commonly delegated to foremen or inside contractors (Nelson 1975, pp. 34-54). In the latter case, skilled craftsmen operated in effect as their own bosses contracting with the firm to supply components or finished products for an agreed price, and taking responsibility for hiring and managing their own assistants.

These arrangements were well suited to promoting external mobility. Foremen were often drawn from the immigrant community and could easily tap into word-of-mouth channels of recruitment. But these benefits came increasingly into conflict with rising costs of hiring and training workers.

The informality of personnel policies prior to World War I seems likely to have discouraged lasting employment relationships, and it is true that rates of labor turnover at the beginning of the twentieth century were considerably higher than they were to be later (Owen, 2004). Scattered evidence on the duration of employment relationships gathered by various state labor bureaus at the end of the century suggests, however, at least some workers did establish lasting employment relationship (Carter 1988; Carter and Savocca 1990; Jacoby and Sharma 1992; James 1994).

The growing awareness of the costs of labor-turnover and informal, casual labor relations led reformers to advocate the establishment of more centralized and formal processes of hiring, firing and promotion, along with the establishment of internal job-ladders, and deferred payment plans to help bind workers and employers. The implementation of these reforms did not make significant headway, however, until the 1920s (Slichter 1929). Why employers began to establish internal labor markets in the 1920s remains in dispute. While some scholars emphasize pressure from workers (Jacoby 1984; 1985) others have stressed that it was largely a response to the rising costs of labor turnover (Edwards 1979).

The Government and the Labor Market

The growth of large factories contributed to rising labor tensions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Issues like hours of work, safety, and working conditions all have a significant public goods aspect. While market forces of entry and exit will force employers to adopt policies that are sufficient to attract the marginal worker (the one just indifferent between staying and leaving), less mobile workers may find that their interests are not adequately represented (Freeman and Medoff 1984). One solution is to establish mechanisms for collective bargaining, and the years after the American Civil War were characterized by significant progress in the growth of organized labor (Friedman 2002). Unionization efforts, however, met strong opposition from employers, and suffered from the obstacles created by the American legal system’s bias toward protecting property and the freedom of contract. Under prevailing legal interpretation, strikes were often found by the courts to be conspiracies in restraint of trade with the result that the apparatus of government was often arrayed against labor.

Although efforts to win significant improvements in working conditions were rarely successful, there were still areas where there was room for mutually beneficial change. One such area involved the provision of disability insurance for workers injured on the job. Traditionally, injured workers had turned to the courts to adjudicate liability for industrial accidents. Legal proceedings were costly and their outcome unpredictable. By the early 1910s it became clear to all sides that a system of disability insurance was preferable to reliance on the courts. Resolution of this problem, however, required the intervention of state legislatures to establish mandatory state workers compensation insurance schemes and remove the issue from the courts. Once introduced workers compensation schemes spread quickly: nine states passed legislation in 1911; 13 more had joined the bandwagon by 1913, and by 1920 44 states had such legislation (Fishback 2001).

Along with workers compensation state legislatures in the late nineteenth century also considered legislation restricting hours of work. Prevailing legal interpretations limited the effectiveness of such efforts for adult males. But rules restricting hours for women and children were found to be acceptable. The federal government passed legislation restricting the employment of children under 14 in 1916, but this law was found unconstitutional in 1916 (Goldin 2000, p. 612-13).

The economic crisis of the 1930s triggered a new wave of government interventions in the labor market. During the 1930s the federal government granted unions the right to organize legally, established a system of unemployment, disability and old age insurance, and established minimum wage and overtime pay provisions.

In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions legalizing unions’ right to bargain collectively. Although the NIRA was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, the key labor provisions of the Act were reinstated in the Wagner Act of 1935. While some of the provisions of the Wagner Act were modified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, its passage marks the beginning of the golden age of organized labor. Union membership jumped very quickly after 1935 from around 12 percent of the non-agricultural labor force to nearly 30 percent, and by the late 1940s had attained a peak of 35 percent, where it stabilized. Since the 1960s, however, union membership has declined steadily, to the point where it is now back at pre-Wagner Act levels.

The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a federal unemployment insurance scheme that was operated in partnership with state governments and financed through a tax on employers. It also created government old age and disability insurance. In 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provided for minimum wages and for overtime pay. At first the coverage of these provisions was limited, but it has been steadily increased in subsequent years to cover most industries today.

In the post-war era, the federal government has expanded its role in managing labor markets both directly—through the establishment of occupational safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws, for example—and indirectly—through its efforts to manage the macroeconomy to insure maximum employment.

A further expansion of federal involvement in labor markets began in 1964 with passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination against both minorities and women. In 1967 the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was passed prohibiting discrimination against people aged 40 to 70 in regard to hiring, firing, working conditions and pay. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 allows for unpaid leave to care for infants, children and other sick relatives (Goldin 2000, p. 614).

Whether state and federal legislation has significantly affected labor market outcomes remains unclear. Most economists would argue that the majority of labor’s gains in the past century would have occurred even in the absence of government intervention. Rather than shaping market outcomes, many legislative initiatives emerged as a result of underlying changes that were making advances possible. According to Claudia Goldin (2000, p. 553) “government intervention often reinforced existing trends, as in the decline of child labor, the narrowing of the wage structure, and the decrease in hours of work.” In other cases, such as Workers Compensation and pensions, legislation helped to establish the basis for markets.

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

The rise of factories and urban employment had implications that went far beyond the labor market itself. On farms women and children had found ready employment (Craig 1993, ch. 4). But when the male household head worked for wages, employment opportunities for other family members were more limited. Late nineteenth-century convention largely dictated that married women did not work outside the home unless their husband was dead or incapacitated (Goldin 1990, p. 119-20). Children, on the other hand, were often viewed as supplementary earners in blue-collar households at this time.

Since 1900 changes in relative earnings power related to shifts in technology have encouraged women to enter the paid labor market while purchasing more of the goods and services that were previously produced within the home. At the same time, the rising value of formal education has lead to the withdrawal of child labor from the market and increased investment in formal education (Whaples 2005). During the first half of the twentieth century high school education became nearly universal. And since World War II, there has been a rapid increase in the number of college educated workers in the U.S. economy (Goldin 2000, p. 609-12).

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

The function of labor markets is to match workers and jobs. As this essay has described the mechanisms by which labor markets have accomplished this task have changed considerably as the American economy has developed. A central issue for economic historians is to assess how changing labor market institutions have affected the efficiency of labor markets. This leads to three sets of questions. The first concerns the long-run efficiency of market processes in allocating labor across space and economic activities. The second involves the response of labor markets to short-run macroeconomic fluctuations. The third deals with wage determination and the distribution of income.

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

Efforts to evaluate the efficiency of market allocation begin with what is commonly know as the “law of one price,” which states that within an efficient market the wage of similar workers doing similar work under similar circumstances should be equalized. The ideal of complete equalization is, of course, unlikely to be achieved given the high information and transactions costs that characterize labor markets. Thus, conclusions are usually couched in relative terms, comparing the efficiency of one market at one point in time with those of some other markets at other points in time. A further complication in measuring wage equalization is the need to compare homogeneous workers and to control for other differences (such as cost of living and non-pecuniary amenities).

Falling transportation and communications costs have encouraged a trend toward diminishing wage gaps over time, but this trend has not always been consistent over time, nor has it applied to all markets in equal measure. That said, what stands out is in fact the relative strength of forces of market arbitrage that have operated in many contexts to promote wage convergence.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the costs of trans-Atlantic migration were still quite high and international wage gaps large. By the 1840s, however, vast improvements in shipping cut the costs of migration, and gave rise to an era of dramatic international wage equalization (O’Rourke and Williamson 1999, ch. 2; Williamson 1995). Figure 1 shows the movement of real wages relative to the United States in a selection of European countries. After the beginning of mass immigration wage differentials began to fall substantially in one country after another. International wage convergence continued up until the 1880s, when it appears that the accelerating growth of the American economy outstripped European labor supply responses and reversed wage convergence briefly. World War I and subsequent immigration restrictions caused a sharper break, and contributed to widening international wage differences during the middle portion of the twentieth century. From World War II until about 1980, European wage levels once again began to converge toward the U.S., but this convergence reflected largely internally-generated improvements in European living standards rather then labor market pressures.

Figure 1

Relative Real Wages of Selected European Countries, 1830-1980 (US = 100)

Source: Williamson (1995), Tables A2.1-A2.3.

Wage convergence also took place within some parts of the United States during the nineteenth century. Figure 2 traces wages in the North Central and Southern regions of the U.S relative to those in the Northeast across the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century. Within the United States, wages in the North Central region of the country were 30 to 40 percent higher than in the East in the 1820s (Margo 2000a, ch. 5). Thereafter, wage gaps declined substantially, falling to the 10-20 percent range before the Civil War. Despite some temporary divergence during the war, wage gaps had fallen to 5 to 10 percent by the 1880s and 1890s. Much of this decline was made possible by faster and less expensive means of transportation, but it was also dependent on the development of labor market institutions linking the two regions, for while transportation improvements helped to link East and West, there was no corresponding North-South integration. While southern wages hovered near levels in the Northeast prior to the Civil War, they fell substantially below northern levels after the Civil War, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2

Relative Regional Real Wage Rates in the United States, 1825-1984

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

Notes and sources: Rosenbloom (2002, p. 133); Montgomery (1992). It is not possible to assemble entirely consistent data on regional wage variations over such an extended period. The nature of the wage data, the precise geographic coverage of the data, and the estimates of regional cost-of-living indices are all different. The earliest wage data—Margo (2000); Sundstrom and Rosenbloom (1993) and Coelho and Shepherd (1976) are all based on occupational wage rates from payroll records for specific occupations; Rosenbloom (1996) uses average earnings across all manufacturing workers; while Montgomery (1992) uses individual level wage data drawn from the Current Population Survey, and calculates geographic variations using a regression technique to control for individual differences in human capital and industry of employment. I used the relative real wages that Montgomery (1992) reported for workers in manufacturing, and used an unweighted average of wages across the cities in each region to arrive at relative regional real wages. Interested readers should consult the various underlying sources for further details.

Despite the large North-South wage gap Table 3 shows there was relatively little migration out of the South until large-scale foreign immigration came to an end. Migration from the South during World War I and the 1920s created a basis for future chain migration, but the Great Depression of the 1930s interrupted this process of adjustment. Not until the 1940s did the North-South wage gap begin to decline substantially (Wright 1986, pp. 71-80). By the 1970s the southern wage disadvantage had largely disappeared, and because of the decline fortunes of older manufacturing districts and the rise of Sunbelt cities, wages in the South now exceed those in the Northeast (Coelho and Ghali 1971; Bellante 1979; Sahling and Smith 1983; Montgomery 1992). Despite these shocks, however, the overall variation in wages appears comparable to levels attained by the end of the nineteenth century. Montgomery (1992), for example finds that from 1974 to 1984 the standard deviation of wages across SMSAs was only about 10 percent of the average wage.

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

South Northeast North Central West
Period White Black White Black White Black White Black
Number (in 1,000s)
1870-80 91 -68 -374 26 26 42 257 0
1880-90 -271 -88 -240 61 -43 28 554 0
1890-00 -30 -185 101 136 -445 49 374 0
1900-10 -69 -194 -196 109 -1,110 63 1,375 22
1910-20 -663 -555 -74 242 -145 281 880 32
1920-30 -704 -903 -177 435 -464 426 1,345 42
1930-40 -558 -480 55 273 -747 152 1,250 55
1940-50 -866 -1581 -659 599 -1,296 626 2,822 356
Rate (migrants/1,000 Population)
1870-80 11 -14 -33 55 2 124 274 0
1880-90 -26 -15 -18 107 -3 65 325 0
1890-00 -2 -26 6 200 -23 104 141 0
1900-10 -4 -24 -11 137 -48 122 329 542
1910-20 -33 -66 -3 254 -5 421 143 491
1920-30 -30 -103 -7 328 -15 415 160 421
1930-40 -20 -52 2 157 -22 113 116 378
1940-50 -28 -167 -20 259 -35 344 195 964

Note: Net migration is calculated as the difference between the actual increase in population over each decade and the predicted increase based on age and sex specific mortality rates and the demographic structure of the region’s population at the beginning of the decade. If the actual increase exceeds the predicted increase this implies a net migration into the region; if the actual increase is less than predicted this implies net migration out of the region. The states included in the Southern region are Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Source: Eldridge and Thomas (1964, pp. 90, 99).

In addition to geographic wage gaps economists have considered gaps between farm and city, between black and white workers, between men and women, and between different industries. The literature on these topics is quite extensive and this essay can only touch on a few of the more general themes raised here as they relate to U.S. economic history.

Studies of farm-city wage gaps are a variant of the broader literature on geographic wage variation, related to the general movement of labor from farms to urban manufacturing and services. Here comparisons are complicated by the need to adjust for the non-wage perquisites that farm laborers typically received, which could be almost as large as cash wages. The issue of whether such gaps existed in the nineteenth century has important implications for whether the pace of industrialization was impeded by the lack of adequate labor supply responses. By the second half of the nineteenth century at least, it appears that farm-manufacturing wage gaps were small and markets were relatively integrated (Wright 1988, pp. 204-5). Margo (2000, ch. 4) offers evidence of a high degree of equalization within local labor markets between farm and urban wages as early as 1860. Making comparisons within counties and states, he reports that farm wages were within 10 percent of urban wages in eight states. Analyzing data from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, Hatton and Williamson (1991) find that farm and city wages were nearly equal within U.S. regions by the 1890s. It appears, however that during the Great Depression farm wages were much more flexible than urban wages causing a large gap to emerge at this time (Alston and Williamson 1991).

Much attention has been focused on trends in wage gaps by race and sex. The twentieth century has seen a substantial convergence in both of these differentials. Table 4 displays comparisons of earnings of black males relative to white males for full time workers. In 1940, full-time black male workers earned only about 43 percent of what white male full-time workers did. By 1980 the racial pay ratio had risen to nearly 73 percent, but there has been little subsequent progress. Until the mid-1960s these gains can be attributed primarily to migration from the low-wage South to higher paying areas in the North, and to increases in the quantity and quality of black education over time (Margo 1995; Smith and Welch 1990). Since then, however, most gains have been due to shifts in relative pay within regions. Although it is clear that discrimination was a key factor in limiting access to education, the role of discrimination within the labor market in contributing to these differentials has been a more controversial topic (see Wright 1986, pp. 127-34). But the episodic nature of black wage gains, especially after 1964 is compelling evidence that discrimination has played a role historically in earnings differences and that federal anti-discrimination legislation was a crucial factor in reducing its effects (Donohue and Heckman 1991).

Table 4

Black Male Wages as a Percentage of White Male Wages, 1940-2004

Date Black Relative Wage
1940 43.4
1950 55.2
1960 57.5
1970 64.4
1980 72.6
1990 70.0
2004 77.0

Notes and Sources: Data for 1940 through 1980 are based on Census data as reported in Smith and Welch (1989, Table 8). Data for 1990 are from Ehrenberg and Smith (2000, Table 12.4) and refer to earnings of full time, full year workers. Data from 2004 are for median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers derived from data in the Current Population Survey accessed on-line from the Bureau of Labor Statistic on 13 December 2005; URL

Male-Female wage gaps have also narrowed substantially over time. In the 1820s women’s earnings in manufacturing were a little less than 40 percent of those of men, but this ratio rose over time reaching about 55 percent by the 1920s. Across all sectors women’s relative pay rose during the first half of the twentieth century, but gains in female wages stalled during the 1950s and 1960s at the time when female labor force participation began to increase rapidly. Beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, relative female pay began to rise again, and today women earn about 80 percent what men do (Goldin 1990, table 3.2; Goldin 2000, pp. 606-8). Part of this remaining difference is explained by differences in the occupational distribution of men and women, with women tending to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. Whether these differences are the result of persistent discrimination or arise because of differences in productivity or a choice by women to trade off greater flexibility in terms of labor market commitment for lower pay remains controversial.

In addition to locational, sectoral, racial and gender wage differentials, economists have also documented and analyzed differences by industry. Krueger and Summers (1987) find that there are pronounced differences in wages by industry within well-specified occupational classes, and that these differentials have remained relatively stable over several decades. One interpretation of this phenomenon is that in industries with substantial market power workers are able to extract some of the monopoly rents as higher pay. An alternative view is that workers are in fact heterogeneous, and differences in wages reflect a process of sorting in which higher paying industries attract more able workers.

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

The existence of unemployment is one of the clearest indications of the persistent frictions that characterize labor markets. As described earlier, the concept of unemployment first entered common discussion with the growth of the factory labor force in the 1870s. Unemployment was not a visible social phenomenon in an agricultural economy, although there was undoubtedly a great deal of hidden underemployment.

Although one might have expected that the shift from spot toward more contractual labor markets would have increased rigidities in the employment relationship that would result in higher levels of unemployment there is in fact no evidence of any long-run increase in the level of unemployment.

Contemporaneous measurements of the rate of unemployment only began in 1940. Prior to this date, economic historians have had to estimate unemployment levels from a variety of other sources. Decennial censuses provide benchmark levels, but it is necessary to interpolate between these benchmarks based on other series. Conclusions about long-run changes in unemployment behavior depend to a large extent on the method used to interpolate between benchmark dates. Estimates prepared by Stanley Lebergott (1964) suggest that the average level of unemployment and its volatility have declined between the pre-1930 and post-World War II periods. Christina Romer (1986a, 1986b), however, has argued that there was no decline in volatility. Rather, she argues that the apparent change in behavior is the result of Lebergott’s interpolation procedure.

While the aggregate behavior of unemployment has changed surprisingly little over the past century, the changing nature of employment relationships has been reflected much more clearly in changes in the distribution of the burden of unemployment (Goldin 2000, pp. 591-97). At the beginning of the twentieth century, unemployment was relatively widespread, and largely unrelated to personal characteristics. Thus many employees faced great uncertainty about the permanence of their employment relationship. Today, on the other hand, unemployment is highly concentrated: falling heavily on the least skilled, the youngest, and the non-white segments of the labor force. Thus, the movement away from spot markets has tended to create a two-tier labor market in which some workers are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, while others remain largely insulated from economic shocks.

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

American economic growth has generated vast increases in the material standard of living. Real gross domestic product per capita, for example, has increased more than twenty-fold since 1820 (Steckel 2002). This growth in total output has in large part been passed on to labor in the form of higher wages. Although labor’s share of national output has fluctuated somewhat, in the long-run it has remained surprisingly stable. According to Abramovitz and David (2000, p. 20), labor received 65 percent of national income in the years 1800-1855. Labor’s share dropped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling to a low of 54 percent of national income between 1890 and 1927, but has since risen, reaching 65 percent again in 1966-1989. Thus, over the long term, labor income has grown at the same rate as total output in the economy.

The distribution of labor’s gains across different groups in the labor force has also varied over time. I have already discussed patterns of wage variation by race and gender, but another important issue revolves around the overall level of inequality of pay, and differences in pay between groups of skilled and unskilled workers. Careful research by Picketty and Saez (2003) using individual income tax returns has documented changes in the overall distribution of income in the United States since 1913. They find that inequality has followed a U-shaped pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Inequality was relatively high at the beginning of the period they consider, fell sharply during World War II, held steady until the early 1970s and then began to increase, reaching levels comparable to those in the early twentieth century by the 1990s.

An important factor in the rising inequality of income since 1970 has been growing dispersion in wage rates. The wage differential between workers in the 90th percentile of the wage distribution and those in the 10th percentile increased by 49 percent between 1969 and 1995 (Plotnick et al 2000, pp. 357-58). These shifts are mirrored in increased premiums earned by college graduates relative to high school graduates. Two primary explanations have been advanced for these trends. First, there is evidence that technological changes—especially those associated with the increased use of information technology—has increased relative demand for more educated workers (Murnane, Willett and Levy (1995). Second, increased global integration has allowed low-wage manufacturing industries overseas to compete more effectively with U.S. manufacturers, thus depressing wages in what have traditionally been high-paying blue collar jobs.

Efforts to expand the scope of analysis over a longer-run encounter problems with more limited data. Based on selected wage ratios of skilled and unskilled workers Willamson and Lindert (1980) have argued that there was an increase in wage inequality over the course of the nineteenth century. But other scholars have argued that the wage series that Williamson and Lindert used are unreliable (Margo 2000b, pp. 224-28).


The history of labor market institutions in the United States illustrates the point that real world economies are substantially more complex than the simplest textbook models. Instead of a disinterested and omniscient auctioneer, the process of matching buyers and sellers takes place through the actions of self-interested market participants. The resulting labor market institutions do not respond immediately and precisely to shifting patterns of incentives. Rather they are subject to historical forces of increasing-returns and lock-in that cause them to change gradually and along path-dependent trajectories.

For all of these departures from the theoretically ideal market, however, the history of labor markets in the United States can also be seen as a confirmation of the remarkable power of market processes of allocation. From the beginning of European settlement in mainland North America, labor markets have done a remarkable job of responding to shifting patterns of demand and supply. Not only have they accomplished the massive geographic shifts associated with the settlement of the United States, but they have also dealt with huge structural changes induced by the sustained pace of technological change.


Abramovitz, Moses and Paul A. David. “American Macroeconomic Growth in the Era of Knowledge-Based Progress: The Long-Run Perspective.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert Gallman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Alston, Lee J. and Jeffery G. Williamson. “The Earnings Gap between Agricultural and Manufacturing Laborers, 1925-1941. Journal of Economic History 51, no. 1 (1991): 83-99.

Barton, Josef J. Peasants and Strangers: Italians, Rumanians, and Slovaks in an American City, 1890-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Bellante, Don. “The North-South Differential and the Migration of Heterogeneous Labor.” American Economic Review 69, no. 1 (1979): 166-75.

Carter, Susan B. “The Changing Importance of Lifetime Jobs in the U.S. Economy, 1892-1978.” Industrial Relations 27 (1988): 287-300.

Carter, Susan B. and Elizabeth Savoca. “Labor Mobility and Lengthy Jobs in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 1 (1990): 1-16.

Carter, Susan B. and Richard Sutch. “Historical Perspectives on the Economic Consequences of Immigration into the United States.” In The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience, edited by Charles Hirschman, Philip Kasinitz and Josh DeWind. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.

Coelho, Philip R.P. and Moheb A. Ghali. “The End of the North-South Wage Differential.” American Economic Review 61, no. 5 (1971): 932-37.

Coelho, Philip R.P. and James F. Shepherd. “Regional Differences in Real Wages: The United States in 1851-1880.” Explorations in Economic History 13 (1976): 203-30.

Craig, Lee A. To Sow One Acre More: Childbearing and Farm Productivity in the Antebellum North. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Donahue, John H. III and James J. Heckman. “Continuous versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks.” Journal of Economic Literature 29, no. 4 (1991): 1603-43.

Dunn, Richard S. “Servants and Slaves: The Recruitment and Employment of Labor.” In Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, edited by Jack P. Greene and J.R. Pole. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Edwards, B. “A World of Work: A Survey of Outsourcing.” Economist 13 November 2004.

Edwards, Richard. Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G. and Robert S. Smith. Modern Labor Economics: Theory and Public Policy, seventh edition. Reading, MA; Addison-Wesley, 2000.

Eldridge, Hope T. and Dorothy Swaine Thomas. Population Redistribution and Economic Growth, United States 1870-1950, vol. 3: Demographic Analyses and Interrelations. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1964.

Fishback, Price V. “Workers’ Compensation.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 15, 2001. URL

Freeman, Richard and James Medoff. What Do Unions Do? New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Friedman, Gerald (2002). “Labor Unions in the United States.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. May 8, 2002. URL

Galenson, David W. White Servitude in Colonial America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Galenson, David W. “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” Journal of Economic History 44, no. 1 (1984): 1-26.

Galloway, Lowell E., Richard K. Vedder and Vishwa Shukla. “The Distribution of the Immigrant Population in the United States: An Econometric Analysis.” Explorations in Economic History 11 (1974): 213-26.

Gjerde, John. From Peasants to Farmers: Migration from Balestrand, Norway to the Upper Middle West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Goldin, Claudia. “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921.” In The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy, edited by Claudia Goldin and Gary Libecap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Goldin, Claudia. “Labor Markets in the Twentieth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert Gallman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Grubb, Farley. “The Market for Indentured Immigrants: Evidence on the Efficiency of Forward Labor Contracting in Philadelphia, 1745-1773.” Journal of Economic History 45, no. 4 (1985a): 855-68.

Grubb, Farley. “The Incidence of Servitude in Trans-Atlantic Migration, 1771-1804.” Explorations in Economic History 22 (1985b): 316-39.

Grubb, Farley. “Redemptioner Immigration to Pennsylvania: Evidence on Contract Choice and Profitability.” Journal of Economic History 46, no. 2 (1986): 407-18.

Hatton, Timothy J. and Jeffrey G. Williamson (1991). “Integrated and Segmented Labor Markets: Thinking in Two Sectors.” Journal of Economic History 51, no. 2 (1991): 413-25.

Hughes, Jonathan and Louis Cain. American Economic History, sixth edition. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2003.

Jacoby, Sanford M. “The Development of Internal Labor markets in American Manufacturing Firms.” In Internal Labor Markets, edited by Paul Osterman, 23-69. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984

Jacoby, Sanford M. Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Jacoby, Sanford M. and Sunil Sharma. “Employment Duration and Industrial Labor Mobility in the United States, 1880-1980.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 1 (1992): 161-79.

James, John A. “Job Tenure in the Gilded Age.” In Labour Market Evolution: The Economic History of Market Integration, Wage Flexibility, and the Employment Relation, edited by George Grantham and Mary MacKinnon. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Kamphoefner, Walter D. The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Keyssar, Alexander. Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Krueger, Alan B. and Lawrence H. Summers. “Reflections on the Inter-Industry Wage Structure.” In Unemployment and the Structure of Labor Markets, edited by Kevin Lang and Jonathan Leonard, 17-47. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Lebergott, Stanley. Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Margo, Robert. “Explaining Black-White Wage Convergence, 1940-1950: The Role of the Great Compression.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 48 (1995): 470-81.

Margo, Robert. Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000a.

Margo, Robert. “The Labor Force in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 2: The Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 207-44. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000b.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America: 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Montgomery, Edward. “Evidence on Metropolitan Wage Differences across Industries and over Time.” Journal of Urban Economics 31 (1992): 69-83.

Morgan, Edmund S. “The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-18.” American Historical Review 76 (1971): 595-611.

Murnane, Richard J., John B. Willett and Frank Levy. “The Growing Importance of Cognitive Skills in Wage Determination.” Review of Economics and Statistics 77 (1995): 251-66

Nelson, Daniel. Managers and Workers: Origins of the New Factory System in the United States, 1880-1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Owen, Laura. “History of Labor Turnover in the U.S.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. April 30, 2004. URL

Piketty, Thomas and Emmanuel Saez. “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (2003): 1-39.

Plotnick, Robert D. et al. “The Twentieth-Century Record of Inequality and Poverty in the United States” In The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert Gallman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Romer, Christina. “New Estimates of Prewar Gross National Product and Unemployment.” Journal of Economic History 46, no. 2 (1986a): 341-52.

Romer, Christina. “Spurious Volatility in Historical Unemployment Data.” Journal of Political Economy 94 (1986b): 1-37.

Rosenbloom, Joshua L. “Was There a National Labor Market at the End of the Nineteenth Century? New Evidence on Earnings in Manufacturing.” Journal of Economic History 56, no. 3 (1996): 626-56.

Rosenbloom, Joshua L. Looking for Work, Searching for Workers: American Labor Markets during Industrialization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Slichter, Sumner H. “The Current Labor Policies of American Industries.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 43 (1929): 393-435.

Sahling, Leonard G. and Sharon P. Smith. “Regional Wage Differentials: Has the South Risen Again?” Review of Economics and Statistics 65 (1983): 131-35.

Smith, James P. and Finis R. Welch. “Black Economic Progress after Myrdal.” Journal of Economic Literature 27 (1989): 519-64.

Steckel, Richard. “A History of the Standard of Living in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. July 22, 2002. URL

Sundstrom, William A. and Joshua L. Rosenbloom. “Occupational Differences in the Dispersion of Wages and Working Hours: Labor Market Integration in the United States, 1890-1903.” Explorations in Economic History 30 (1993): 379-408.

Ward, David. Cities and Immigrants: A Geography of Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Ware, Caroline F. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study in Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Weiss, Thomas. “Revised Estimates of the United States Workforce, 1800-1860.” In Long Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 641-78. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986.

Whaples, Robert. “Child Labor in the United States.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 8, 2005. URL

Williamson, Jeffrey G. “The Evolution of Global Labor Markets since 1830: Background Evidence and Hypotheses.” Explorations in Economic History 32 (1995): 141-96.

Williamson, Jeffrey G. and Peter H. Lindert. American Inequality: A Macroeconomic History. New York: Academic Press, 1980.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Wright, Gavin. “Postbellum Southern Labor Markets.” In Quantity and Quiddity: Essays in U.S. Economic History, edited by Peter Kilby. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Wright, Gavin. “American Agriculture and the Labor Market: What Happened to Proletarianization?” Agricultural History 62 (1988): 182-209.

Citation: Rosenbloom, Joshua. “The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

The Roots of American Industrialization, 1790-1860

David R. Meyer, Brown University

The Puzzle of Industrialization

In a society which is predominantly agricultural, how is it possible for industrialization to gain a foothold? One view is that the demand of farm households for manufactures spurs industrialization, but such an outcome is not guaranteed. What if farm households can meet their own food requirements, and they choose to supply some of their needs for manufactures by engaging in small-scale craft production in the home? They might supplement this production with limited purchases of goods from local craftworkers and purchases of luxuries from other countries. This local economy would be relatively self-sufficient, and there is no apparent impetus to alter it significantly through industrialization, that is, the growth of workshop and factory production for larger markets. Others would claim that limited gains might come from specialization, once demand passed some small threshold. Finally, it has been argued that if the farmers are impoverished, some of them would be available for manufacturing and this would provide an incentive to industrialize. However, this argument begs the question as to who would purchase the manufactures. One possibility is that non-farm rural dwellers, such as trade people, innkeepers, and professionals, as well as a small urban population, might provide an impetus to limited industrialization.

The problem with the “impoverished agriculture” theory

The industrialization of the eastern United States from 1790 to 1860 raises similar conundrums. For a long time, scholars thought that the agriculture was mostly poor quality. Thus, the farm labor force left agriculture for workshops, such as those which produced shoes, or for factories, such as the cotton textile mills of New England. These manufactures provided employment for women and children, who otherwise had limited productive possibilities because the farms were not economical. Yet, the market for manufactures remained mostly in the East prior to 1860. Consequently, it is unclear who would have purchased the products to support the growth of manufactures before 1820, as well as to undergird the large-scale industrialization of the East during the two decades following 1840. Even if the impoverished-agriculture explanation of the East’s industrialization is rejected, we are still left with the curiosity that as late as 1840, about eighty percent of the population lived in rural areas, though some of them were in nonfarm occupations.

In brief, the puzzle of eastern industrialization between 1790 and 1860 can be resolved – the East had a prosperous agriculture. Farmers supplied low-cost agricultural products to rural and urban dwellers, and this population demanded manufactures, which were supplied by vigorous local and subregional manufacturing sectors. Some entrepreneurs shifted into production for larger market areas, and this transformation occurred especially in sectors such as shoes, selected light manufactures produced in Connecticut (such as buttons, tinware, and wooden clocks), and cotton textiles. Transportation improvements exerted little impact on these agricultural and industrial developments, primarily because the lowly wagon served effectively as a transport medium and much of the East’s most prosperous areas were accessible to cheap waterway transportation. The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, and the satellites of each (together, each metropolis and its satellites is called a metropolitan industrial complex), became leading manufacturing centers, and other industrial centers emerged in prosperous agricultural areas distant from these complexes. The East industrialized first, and, subsequently, the Midwest began an agricultural and industrial growth process which was underway by the 1840s. Together, the East and the Midwest constituted the American Manufacturing Belt, which was formed by the 1870s, whereas the South failed to industrialize commensurately.

Synergy between Agriculture and Manufacturing

The solution to the puzzle of how industrialization can occur in a predominantly agricultural economy recognizes the possibility of synergy between agriculture and manufacturing. During the first three decades following 1790, prosperous agricultural areas emerged in the eastern United States. Initially, these areas were concentrated near the small metropolises of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and in river valleys such as the Connecticut Valley in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys in New York, the Delaware Valley bordering Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the Susquehanna Valley in eastern Pennsylvania. These agricultural areas had access to cheap, convenient transport which could be used to reach markets; the farms supplied the growing urban populations in the cities and some of the products were exported. Furthermore, the farmers supplied the nearby, growing non-farm populations in the villages and small towns who provided goods and services to farmers. These non-farm consumers included retailers, small mill owners, teamsters, craftspeople, and professionals (clergy, physicians, and lawyers).

Across every decade from 1800 to 1860, the number of farm laborers grew, thus testifying to the robustness of eastern agriculture (see Table 1). And, this increase occurred in the face of an expanding manufacturing sector, as increasing numbers of rural dwellers left the farms to work in the factories, especially after 1840. Even New England, the region which presumably was the epitome of declining agriculture, witnessed a rise in the number of farm laborers all the way up to 1840, and, as of 1860, the drop off from the peak was small. Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had vigorous small workshops and increasing numbers of small factories before 1840, followed by a surge in manufacturing after 1840, matched the trajectory of farm laborers in New England as a whole. The numbers in these two states peaked in 1840 and fell off only modestly over the next twenty years. The Middle Atlantic region witnessed an uninterrupted rise in the number of farm laborers over the sixty-year period. New York and Pennsylvania, the largest states, followed slightly different paths. In New York, the number of farm laborers peaked around 1840 and then stabilized near that level for the next two decades, whereas in Pennsylvania the number of farm laborers rose in an uninterrupted fashion.

Table 1
Number of Farm Laborers by Region and Selected States, 1800-1860

Year 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860
New England 228,100 257,700 303,400 353,800 389,100 367,400 348,100
Massachusetts 73,200 72,500 73,400 78,500 87,900 80,800 77,700
Connecticut 50,400 49,300 51,500 55,900 57,000 51,400 51,800
Middle Atlantic 375,700 471,400 571,700 715,000 852,800 910,400 966,600
New York 111,800 170,100 256,000 356,300 456,000 437,100 449,100
Pennsylvania 112,600 141,000 164,900 195,200 239,000 296,300 329,000
East 831,900 986,800 1,178,500 1,422,600 1,631,000 1,645,200 1,662,800

Source: Thomas Weiss, “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860,”American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), table 1A.9, p. 51.

The farmers, retailers, professionals, and others in these prosperous agricultural areas accumulated capital which became available for other economic sectors, and manufacturing was one of the most important to receive this capital. Entrepreneurs who owned small workshops and factories obtained capital to turn out a wide range of goods such as boards, boxes, utensils, building hardware, furniture, and wagons, which were in demand in the agricultural areas. And, some of these workshops and factories enlarged their market areas to a subregion as they gained production efficiencies; but, this did not account for all industrial development. Selected manufactures such as shoes, tinware, buttons, and cotton textiles were widely demanded by urban and rural residents of prosperous agricultural areas and by residents of the large cities. These products were high value relative to their weight; thus, the cost to ship them long distances was low. Astute entrepreneurs devised production methods and marketing approaches to sell these goods in large market areas, including New England and the Middle Atlantic regions of the East.

Manufactures Which Were Produced for Large Market Areas

Shoes and Tinware

Small workshops turned out shoes. Massachusetts entrepreneurs devised an integrated shoe production complex based on a division of labor among shops, and they established a marketing arm of wholesalers, principally in Boston, who sold the shoes throughout New England, to the Middle Atlantic, and to the South (particularly, to slave plantations). Businesses in Connecticut drew on the extensive capital accumulated by the well-to-do rural and urban dwellers of that state and moved into tinware, plated ware, buttons, and wooden clocks. These products, like shoes, also were manufactured in small workshops, but a division of labor among shops was less important than the organization of production within shops. Firms producing each good tended to agglomerate in a small subregion of the state. These clusters arose because entrepreneurs shared information about production techniques and specialized skills which they developed, and this knowledge was communicated as workers moved among shops. Initially, a marketing system of peddlers emerged in the tinware sector, and they sold the goods, first throughout Connecticut, and then they extended their travels to the rest of New England and to the Middle Atlantic. Workshops which made other types of light, high-value goods soon took advantage of the peddler distribution system to enlarge their market areas. At first, these peddlers operated part-time during the year, but as the supply of goods increased and market demand grew, peddlers operated for longer periods of the year and they traveled farther.

Cotton Textiles

Cotton textile manufacturing was an industry built on low-wage, especially female, labor; presumably, this industry offered opportunities in areas where farmers were unsuccessful. Yet, similar to the other manufactures which enlarged their market areas to the entire East before 1820, cotton textile production emerged in prosperous agricultural areas. That is not surprising, because this industry required substantial capital, technical skills, and, initially, nearby markets. These requirements were met in rich farming areas, which also could draw on wealthy merchants in large cities who contributed capital and provided sale outlets beyond nearby markets as output grew. The production processes in cotton textile manufacturing, however, diverged from the approaches to making shoes and small metal and wooden products. From the start, production processes included textile machinery, which initially consisted of spinning machines to make yarn, and later (after 1815), weaving machines and other mechanical equipment were added. Highly skilled mechanics were required to build the machines and to maintain them. The greater capital requirements for cotton mills, compared to shoes and small goods’ manufactures in Connecticut, meant that merchant wholesalers and wealthy retailers, professionals, mill owners, and others, were important underwriters of the factories.

Starting in the 1790s, New England, and, especially, Rhode Island, housed the leaders in early cotton textile manufacturing. Providence merchants funded some of the first successful cotton spinning mills, and they drew on the talents of Samuel Slater, an immigrant British machinist. He trained many of the first important textile mechanics, and investors in various parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York hired them to build mills. Between 1815 and 1820, power-loom weaving began to be commercially feasible, and this effort was led by firms in Rhode Island and, especially, in Massachusetts. Boston merchants, starting with the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, devised a business plan which targeted large-scale, integrated cotton textile manufacturing, with a marketing/sales arm housed in a separate firm. They enlarged their effort significantly after 1820, and much of the impetus to the growth of the cotton textile industry came from the success entrepreneurs had in lowering the cost of production.

The Impact of Transportation Improvements

Following 1820, government and private sources invested substantial sums in canals, and after 1835, railroad investment increased rapidly. Canals required huge volumes of low-value commodities in order to pay operating expenses, cover interest on the bonds which were issued for construction, and retire the bonds at maturity. These conditions were only met in the richest agricultural and resource (lumbering and coal mining, for example) areas traversed by the Erie and Champlain Canals in New York and the coal canals in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The vast majority of the other canals failed to yield benefits for agriculture and industry, and most were costly debacles. Early railroads mainly carried passengers, especially within fifty to one hundred miles of the largest cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Industrial products were not carried in large volumes until after 1850; consequently, railroads built before that time had little impact on industrialization in the East.

Canals and railroads had minor impacts on agricultural and industrial development because the lowly wagon provided withering competition. Wagons offered flexible, direct connections between origins and destinations, without the need to transship goods, as was the case with canals and railroads; these modes required wagons at their end points. Within a distance of about fifty miles, the cost of wagon transport was competitive with alternative transport modes, so long as the commodities were high value relative to their weight. And, infrequent transport of these goods could occur over distances of as much as one hundred miles. This applied to many manufactures, and agricultural commodities could be raised to high value by processing prior to shipment. Thus, wheat was turned into flour, corn and other grains were fed to cattle and pigs and these were processed into beef and pork prior to shipment, and milk was converted into butter and cheese. Most of the richest agricultural and industrial areas of the East were less than one hundred miles from the largest cities or these areas were near low-cost waterway transport along rivers, bays, and the Atlantic Coast. Therefore, canals and railroads in these areas had difficulty competing for freight, and outside these areas the limited production generated little demand for long distant transport services.

Agricultural Prosperity Continues

After 1820, eastern farmers seized the increasing market opportunities in the prosperous rural areas as nonfarm processing expanded and village and small town populations demanded greater amounts of farm products. The large number of farmers who were concentrated around the rapidly growing metropolises (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) and near urban agglomerations such as Albany-Troy, New York, developed increasing specialization in urban market goods such as fluid milk, fresh vegetables, fruit, butter, and hay (for horse transport). Farmers farther away responded to competition by shifting into products which could be transported long distances to market, including wheat into flour, cattle which walked to market, or pigs which were converted into pork. During the winter these farms sent butter, and cheese was a specialty which could be lucrative for long periods of the year when temperatures were cool.

These changes swept across the East, and, after 1840, farmers increasingly adjusted their production to compete with cheap wheat, cattle, and pork arriving over the Erie Canal from the Midwest. Wheat growing became less profitable, and specialized agriculture expanded, such as potatoes, barley, and hops in central New York and cigar tobacco in the Connecticut Valley. Farmers near the largest cities intensified their specialization in urban market products, and as the railroads expanded, fluid milk was shipped longer distances to these cities. Farmers in less accessible areas and on poor agricultural land which was infertile or too hilly, became less competitive. If these farmers and their children stayed, their incomes declined relative to others in the East, but if they moved to the Midwest or to the burgeoning industrial cities of the East, they had the chance of participating in the rising prosperity.

Metropolitan Industrial Complexes

The metropolises of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore, led the industrial expansion after 1820, because they were the greatest concentrated markets, they had the most capital, and their wholesalers provided access to subregional and regional markets outside the metropolises. By 1840, each of them was surrounded by industrial satellites – manufacturing centers in close proximity to, and economically integrated with, the metropolis. Together, these metropolises and their satellites formed metropolitan industrial complexes, which accounted for almost one-quarter of the nation’s manufacturing (see Table 2). For example, metropolises and satellites included Boston and Lowell, New York and Paterson (New Jersey), Philadelphia and Reading (Pennsylvania), and Baltimore and Wilmington (Delaware), which also was a satellite of Philadelphia. Among the four leading metropolises, New York and Philadelphia housed, by far, the largest share of the nation’s manufacturing workers, and their satellites had large numbers of industrial workers. Yet, Boston’s satellites contained the greatest concentration of industrial workers in the nation, with almost seven percent of the national total. The New York, Philadelphia, and Boston metropolitan industrial complexes each had approximately the same share of the nation’s manufacturing workers. These complexes housed a disproportionate share of the nation’s commerce-serving manufactures such as printing-publishing and paper and of local, regional, and national market manufactures such as glass, drugs and paints, textiles, musical instruments, furniture, hardware, and machinery.

Table 2
Manufacturing Employment in the Metropolitan Industrial Complexes
of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore
as a Percentage of National Manufacturing Employment in 1840

Metropolis Satellites Complex
New York 4.1% 3.4% 7.4%
Philadelphia 3.9 2.9 6.7
Boston 0.5 6.6 7.1
Baltimore 2.0 0.2 2.3
Four Complexes 10.5 13.1 23.5

Note: Metropolitan county is defined as the metropolis for each complex and “outside” comprises nearby counties; those included in each complex were the following. New York: metropolis (New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond); outside (Connecticut: Fairfield; New York: Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange; New Jersey: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset). Philadelphia: metropolis (Philadelphia); outside (Pennsylvania: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery; New Jersey: Burlington, Gloucester, Mercer; Delaware: New Castle). Boston: metropolis (Suffolk); outside (Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth). Baltimore: metropolis (Baltimore); outside (Anne Arundel, Harford).

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841).

Also, by 1840, prosperous agricultural areas farther from these complexes, such as the Connecticut Valley in New England, the Hudson Valley, the Erie Canal Corridor across New York state, and southeastern Pennsylvania, housed significant amounts of manufacturing in urban places. At the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the Albany-Troy agglomeration contained one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing outside the metropolitan complexes. And, industrial towns such as Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were strung along the Erie Canal Corridor. Many of the manufactures (such as furniture, wagons, and machinery) served subregional markets in the areas of prosperous agriculture, but some places also developed specialization in manufactures (textiles and hardware) for larger regional and interregional market areas (the East as a whole). The Connecticut Valley, for example, housed many firms which produced cotton textiles, hardware, and cutlery.

Manufactures for Eastern and National Markets


In several industrial sectors whose firms had expanded before 1820 to regional, and even, multiregional markets, in the East, firms intensified their penetration of eastern markets and reached to markets in the rapidly growing Midwest between 1820 and 1860. In eastern Massachusetts, a production complex of shoe firms innovated methods of organizing output within and among firms, and they developed a wide array of specialized tools and components to increase productivity and to lower manufacturing costs. In addition, a formidable wholesaling, marketing, and distribution complex, headed by Boston wholesalers, pushed the ever-growing volume of shoes into sales channels which reached throughout the nation. Machinery did not come into use until the 1850s, and, by 1860, Massachusetts accounted for half of the value of the nation’s shoe production.

Cotton Textiles

In contrast, machinery constituted an important factor of production which drove down the price of cotton textile goods, substantially enlarging the quantity consumers demanded. Before 1820, most of the machinery innovations improved the spinning process for making yarn, and in the five years following 1815, innovations in mechanized weaving generated an initial substantial drop in the cost of production as the first integrated spinning-weaving mills emerged. During the next decade and a half the price of cotton goods collapsed by over fifty percent as large integrated spinning-weaving mills became the norm for the production of most cotton goods. Therefore, by the mid-1830s vast volumes of cotton goods were pouring out of textile mills, and a sophisticated set of specialized wholesaling firms, mostly concentrated in Boston, and secondarily, in New York and Philadelphia, channeled these items into the national market.

Prior to 1820, the cotton textile industry was organized into three cores. The Providence core dominated and the Boston core occupied second place; both of these were based mostly on mechanized spinning. A third core in the city of Philadelphia was based on hand spinning and weaving. Within about fifteen years after 1820, the Boston core soared to a commanding position in cotton textile production as a group of Boston merchants and their allies relentlessly replicated their business plan at various sites in New England, including at Lowell, Chicopee, and Taunton in Massachusetts, at Nashua, Manchester, and Dover in New Hampshire, and at Saco in Maine. The Providence core continued to grow, but its investors did not seem to fully grasp the strategic, multi-faceted business plan which the Boston merchants implemented. Similarly, investors in an emerging core within about fifty to seventy-five miles of New York City in the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey likewise did not seem to fully understand the Boston merchants’ plan, and these New York City area firms never reached the scale of the firms of the Boston Core. The Philadelphia core enlarged to nearby areas southwest of the city and in Delaware, but these firms stayed small, and the Philadelphia firms created a small-scale, flexible production system which turned out specialized goods, not the mass-market commodity textiles of the other cores.

Capital Investment in Cotton Textiles

The distribution of capital investment in cotton textiles across the regions and states of the East between 1820 and 1860 capture the changing prominence of the cores of cotton textile production (see Table 3). The New England and the Middle Atlantic regions contained approximately similar shares (almost half each) of the nation’s capital investment. However, during the 1820s the cotton textile industry restructured to a form which was maintained for the next three decades. New England’s share of capital investment surged to about seventy percent, and it maintained that share until 1860, whereas the Middle Atlantic region’s share fell to around twenty percent by 1840 and remained near that until 1860. The rest of the nation, primarily the South, reached about ten percent of total capital investment around 1840 and continued at that level for the next two decades. Massachusetts became the leading cotton textile state by 1831 and Rhode Island, the early leader, gradually slipped to a level of about ten percent by the 1850s; New Hampshire and Pennsylvania housed approximately similar shares as Rhode Island by that time.

Table 3
Capital Invested in Cotton Textiles
by Region and State as a Percentage of the Nation

Region/state 1820 1831 1840 1850 1860
New England 49.6% 69.8% 68.4% 72.3% 70.3%
Maine 1.6 1.9 2.7 4.5 6.1
New Hampshire 5.6 13.1 10.8 14.7 12.8
Vermont 1.0 0.7 0.2 0.3 0.3
Massachusetts 14.3 31.7 34.1 38.2 34.2
Connecticut 11.6 7.0 6.2 5.7 6.7
Rhode Island 15.4 15.4 14.3 9.0 10.2
Middle Atlantic 46.2 29.5 22.7 17.3 19.0
New York 18.8 9.0 9.6 5.6 5.5
New Jersey 4.7 5.0 3.4 2.0 1.3
Pennsylvania 6.3 9.3 6.5 6.1 9.3
Delaware 4.0 0.9 0.6 0.6 0.6
Maryland 12.4 5.3 2.6 3.0 2.3
Rest of nation 4.3 0.7 9.0 10.4 10.7
Nation 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total capital (thousands) $10,783 $40,613 $51,102 $74,501 $98,585

Sources: David J. Jeremy, Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies Between Britain and America, 1790-1830s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), appendix D, table D.1, p. 276; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Compendium of the Sixth Census, 1840 (Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1841); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Report on the Manufactures of the United States at the Tenth Census, 1880 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1883).

Connecticut’s Industries

In Connecticut, industrialists built on their successful production and sales prior to 1820 and expanded into a wider array of products which they sold in the East and South, and, after 1840, they acquired more sales in the Midwest. This success was not based on a mythical “Yankee ingenuity,” which, typically, has been framed in terms of character. Instead, this ingenuity rested on fundamental assets: a highly educated population linked through wide-ranging social networks which communicated information about technology, labor opportunities, and markets; and the abundant supplies of capital in the state supported the entrepreneurs. The peddler distribution system provided efficient sales channels into the mid-1830s, but, after that, firms took advantage of more traditional wholesaling channels. In some sectors, such as the brass industry, firms followed the example of the large Boston-core textile firms, and the brass companies founded their own wholesale distribution agencies in Boston and New York City. The achievements of Connecticut’s firms were evident by 1850. As a share of the nation’s value of production, they accounted for virtually all of the clocks, pins, and suspenders, close to half of the buttons and rubber goods, and about one-third of the brass foundry products, Britannia and plated ware, and hardware.

Difficulty of Duplicating Eastern Methods in the Midwest

The East industrialized first, based on a prosperous agricultural and industrialization process, as some of its entrepreneurs shifted into the national market manufactures of shoes, cotton textiles, and diverse goods turned out in Connecticut. These industrialists made this shift prior to 1820, and they enhanced their dominance of these products during the subsequent two decades. Manufacturers in the Midwest did not have sufficient intraregional markets to begin producing these goods before 1840; therefore, they could not compete in these national market manufactures. Eastern firms had developed technologies and organizations of production and created sales channels which could not be readily duplicated, and these light, high-value goods were transported cheaply to the Midwest. When midwestern industrialists faced choices about which manufactures to enter, the eastern light, high-value goods were being sold in the Midwest at prices which were so low that it was too risky for midwestern firms to attempt to compete. Instead, these firms moved into a wide range of local and regional market manufactures which also existed in the East, but which cost too much to transport to the Midwest. These goods included lumber and food products (e.g., flour and whiskey), bricks, chemicals, machinery, and wagons.

The American Manufacturing Belt

The Midwest Joins the American Manufacturing Belt after 1860

Between 1840 and 1860, Midwestern manufacturers made strides in building an industrial infrastructure, and they were positioned to join with the East to constitute the American Manufacturing Belt, the great concentration of manufacturing which would sprawl from the East Coast to the edge of the Great Plains. This Belt became mostly set within a decade or so after 1860, because technologies and organizations of production and of sales channels had lowered costs across a wide array of manufactures, and improvements in transportation (such as an integrated railroad system) and communication (such as the telegraph) reduced distribution costs. Thus, increasing shares of industrial production were sold in interregional markets.

Lack of Industrialization in the South

Although the South had prosperous farms, it failed to build a deep and broad industrial infrastructure prior to 1860, because much of its economy rested on a slave agricultural system. In this economy, investments were heavily concentrated in slaves rather than in an urban and industrial infrastructure. Local and regional demand remained low across much of the South, because slaves were not able to freely express their consumption demands and population densities remained low, except in a few agricultural areas. Thus, the market thresholds for many manufactures were not met, and, if thresholds were met, the demand was insufficient to support more than a few factories. By the 1870s, when the South had recovered from the Civil War and its economy was reconstructed, eastern and midwestern industrialists had built strong positions in many manufactures. And, as new industries emerged, the northern manufacturers had the technological and organizational infrastructure and distribution channels to capture dominance in the new industries.

In a similar fashion, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the West were settled too late for their industrialists to be major producers of national market goods. Manufacturers in these regions focused on local and regional market manufactures. Some low wage industries (such as textiles) began to move to the South in significant numbers after 1900, and the emergence of industries based on high technology after 1950 led to new manufacturing concentrations which rested on different technologies. Nonetheless, the American Manufacturing Belt housed the majority of the nation’s industry until the middle of the twentieth century.

This essay is based on David R. Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Additional Readings

Atack, Jeremy, and Fred Bateman. To Their Own Soil: Agriculture in the Antebellum North. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Baker, Andrew H., and Holly V. Izard. “New England Farmers and the Marketplace, 1780-1865: A Case Study.” Agricultural History 65 (1991): 29-52.

Barker, Theo, and Dorian Gerhold. The Rise and Rise of Road Transport, 1700-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Brown, Richard D. Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Durrenberger, Joseph A. Turnpikes: A Study of the Toll Road Movement in the Middle Atlantic States and Maryland. Cos Cob, CT: John E. Edwards, 1968.

Field, Alexander J. “On the Unimportance of Machinery.” Explorations in Economic History 22 (1985): 378-401.

Fishlow, Albert. American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Fishlow, Albert. “Antebellum Interregional Trade Reconsidered.” American Economic Review 54 (1964): 352-64.

Goodrich, Carter, ed. Canals and American Economic Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Gross, Robert A. “Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau’s Concord.” Journal of American History 69 (1982): 42-61.

Hoke, Donald R. Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Jeremy, David J. Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies between Britain and America, 1790-1830s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Jones, Chester L. The Economic History of the Anthracite-Tidewater Canals. University of Pennsylvania Series on Political Economy and Public Law, no. 22. Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1908.

Karr, Ronald D. “The Transformation of Agriculture in Brookline, 1770-1885.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 15 (1987): 33-49.

Lindstrom, Diane. Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region, 1810-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

McMurry, Sally. Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families and Agricultural Change, 1820-1885. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

McNall, Neil A. An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790-1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952.

Majewski, John. A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mancall, Peter C. Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Margo, Robert A. Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Meyer, David R. “The Division of Labor and the Market Areas of Manufacturing Firms.” Sociological Forum 3 (1988): 433-53.

Meyer, David R. “Emergence of the American Manufacturing Belt: An Interpretation.” Journal of Historical Geography 9 (1983): 145-74.

Meyer, David R. “The Industrial Retardation of Southern Cities, 1860-1880.” Explorations in Economic History 25 (1988): 366-86.

Meyer, David R. “Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Economic History 49 (1989): 921-37.

Ransom, Roger L. “Interregional Canals and Economic Specialization in the Antebellum United States.” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 5, no. 1 (1967-68): 12-35.

Roberts, Christopher. The Middlesex Canal, 1793-1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Rothenberg, Winifred B. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Scranton, Philip. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Shlakman, Vera. “Economic History of a Factory Town: A Study of Chicopee, Massachusetts.” Smith College Studies in History 20, nos. 1-4 (1934-35): 1-264.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John J. Wallis, 345-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Inventive Activity in Early Industrial America: Evidence from Patent Records, 1790-1846.” Journal of Economic History 48 (1988): 813-50.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Productivity Growth in Manufacturing during Early Industrialization: Evidence from the American Northeast, 1820-1860.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 679-729. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Ware, Caroline F. The Early New England Cotton Manufacture: A Study in Industrial Beginnings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Weiss, Thomas. “Economic Growth before 1860: Revised Conjectures.” In American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, edited by Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer, 11-27. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Weiss, Thomas. “Long-Term Changes in U.S. Agricultural Output per Worker, 1800-1900.” Economic History Review 46 (1993): 324-41.

Weiss, Thomas. “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 19-75. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wood, Frederic J. The Turnpikes of New England. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1919.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Zevin, Robert B. “The Growth of Cotton Textile Production after 1815.” In The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, edited by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, 122-47. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Citation: Meyer, David. “American Industrialization”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Credit in the Colonial American Economy

David T Flynn, University of North Dakota

Overview of Credit versus Barter and Cash

Credit was vital to the economy of colonial America and much of the individual prosperity and success in the colonies was due to credit. Networks of credit stretched across the Atlantic from Britain to the major port cities and into the interior of the country allowing exchange to occur (Bridenbaugh, 1990, 154). Colonists made purchases by credit, cash and barter. Barter and cash were spot exchanges, goods and services were given in exchange for immediate payment. Credit, however, delayed the payment until a later date. Understanding the role of credit in the eighteenth century requires a brief discussion of all payment options as well as the nature of the repayment of credit.


Barter is an exchange of goods and services for other goods and services and can be a very difficult method of exchange due to the double coincidence of wants. For exchange to occur in a barter situation each party must have the good desired by its trading partner. Suppose John Hancock has paper supplies and wants corn while Paul Revere has silver spoons and wants paper products. Even though Revere wants the goods available from Hancock no exchange occurs because Hancock does not want the good Revere has to offer. The double coincidence of wants can make barter very costly because of time spent searching for a trading partner. This time could otherwise be used for consumption, production, leisure, or any number of other activities. The principle advantage of any form of money over barter is obvious: money satisfies the double coincidence of wants, that is, money functions as a medium of exchange.

Money’s advantages

Money also has other functions that make it a superior method of exchange to barter including acting as the unit of account (the unit in which prices are quoted) in the economy (e.g. the dollar in the United States and the pound in England). A barter economy uses a large number of prices because every good must have a price in terms of each other good available in the economy. An economy with n different goods would have n(n-1)/2 prices in total, not an enormous burden for small values of n, but as n grows it quickly becomes unmanageable. A unit of account reduces the number of prices from the barter situation to n, or the number of goods. The colonists had a unit of account, the colonial pound (£), which removed this burden of barter.

Several forms of money circulated in the colonies over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as specie, commodity money and paper currency. Specie is gold or silver minted into coins and is a special form of commodity money, a good that has an exchange value separate from the market value of the good. Tobacco, and later tobacco warehouse receipts, acted as a form of money in many of the colonies. Despite multiple money options some colonists complained of an inability to keep money in circulation, or at least in the hands of those wanting to use it for exchange (Baxter, 1945, 11-17; Bridenbaugh, 153).1

Credit’s advantages

When you acquire goods with credit you delay payment to a later time, be it one day or one year. A basic credit transaction today is essentially the same as in the eighteenth century, only the form is different.2 Extending credit presents risks, most notably default, or the failure of the borrower to repay the amount borrowed. Sellers also needed to worry about the total volume of credit they extended because it threatened their solvency in the case of default. Consumers benefited from credit by the ability to consume beyond current financial resources, as well as security from theft and other advantages. Sellers gained by faster sales of goods and interest charges, often hidden in a higher price for the goods.3

Uncertainty about the scope of credit

The frequency of credit versus barter and cash is not well quantified because surviving account books and transaction records generally only report cash or goods payments made after the merchant allowed credit, not spot cash or barter transactions (Baxter, 19n). Martin (1939, 150) concurs, “The entries represent transactions with those customers who did not pay at once on purchasing goods for [the seller] either made no record of immediate cash purchases, or else there were almost no such transactions.” The results of Flynn’s (2001) study using merchant account books from Connecticut and Massachusetts found also that most purchases recorded in the account books were credit purchases (see Table 1 below).4 Scholars are forced to make general statements about credit as a standard tool in transactions in port cities and rural villages without reference to specific numbers (Perkins, 1980, 123-124).

Table 1

Percentage of Purchases by Type

Purchases by Credit Purchases by Cash Purchases by Barter
Connecticut 98.6 1.1 0.3
Massachusetts 98.5 1.0 0.4
Combined 98.6 1.0 0.4

Source: Adapted from Table 3.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Indications of the importance of credit

In some regions, the institution of credit was so accepted that many employers, including merchants, paid their employees by providing them credit at a store on the business’s account (Martin, 94). Probate inventories evidence the frequency of credit through the large amount of accounts receivable recorded for traders and merchant in Connecticut, sometimes over £1,000 (Main, 1985, 302-303). Accounts receivable are an asset of the business representing amounts owed to the business by other parties. Almost 30 percent of the estates of Connecticut “traders” contained £100 or more of receivables as part of their estate (Main, 316). More than this, accounts receivable averaged one-eighth of personal wealth throughout most of the colonial period, and more than one-fifth at the end (Main, 36). While there is no evidence that enables us to determine the relative frequencies of payments, the available information supports the idea that the different forms of payment co-existed.

The Different Types of Credit

There are three different types of credit to discuss: international credit, book credit, and promissory notes and each facilitated exchange and payments. Colonial importers and wholesalers relied on credit from British suppliers while rural merchants received credit from importers and wholesalers in the port cities and, finally, consumers received credit from the retailers. A discussion starts logically with international credit from British suppliers to colonial merchants because it allowed colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers (McCusker and Menard, 1985, 80n; Martin, 1939, 19; Perkins, 1980, 24).

Overseas credit

Research on colonial growth attaches importance to several items including foreign funds, capital improvements and productivity gains. The majority of foreign funds transferred were in the form of mercantile credit (Egnal, 1998, 12-20). British merchants shipped goods to colonial merchants on credit for between six months and one year before demanding payment or charging interest (Egnal, 55; Perkins, 1994, 65; Shepherd and Walton, 1972, 131-132; Thomson, 1955, 15). Other examples show a minimum of one year’s credit given before suppliers assessed five percent interest charges (Martin, 122-123). Factors such as interest and duration determined for how long colonial merchants could extend credit to their own customers and at what level of markup. Some merchants sold goods on commission, where the goods remained the property of the British merchant until sold. After the sale the colonial merchant remitted the funds, less his fee, to the British merchant.

Relationships between colonial and British merchants exhibited regional differences. Virginia merchants’ system of exchange, known as the consignment system, depended on the credit arrangements between planters and “factors” – middlemen who accepted colonial goods and acquired British or other products desired by colonists (Thomson, 28). A relationship with a British merchant was important for success in business because it provided the tobacco growers and factors access to supplies of credit sufficient to maintain business (Thomson, 211). Independent Virginia merchants, those without a British connection, ordered their supplies of goods on credit and paid with locally produced goods (Thomson, 15). Virginia and other Southern colonies could rely on credit because of their production of a staple crop desired by British merchants. New England merchants such as Thomas Hancock, uncle of the famous patriot John Hancock, could not rely on this to the same extent. New England merchants sometimes engaged in additional exchanges with other colonies and countries because they lacked goods desired by British merchants (Baxter, 46-47). Without the willingness of British merchant houses to wait for payment it would have been difficult for many colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers.

Domestic credit: book credit and promissory notes

Domestic credit was primarily of two forms, book credit and promissory notes. Merchants recorded book credit in the account books of the business. These entries were debits for an individual’s account and were set against payments, credits in the merchant’s ledger. Promissory notes detailed a debt, including typically the date of issue, the date of redemption, the amount owed, possibly the form of repayment and an interest rate. Book credit and promissory notes were substitutes and complements. Both represented a delay of payment and could be used to acquire goods but book accounts were also a large source of personal notes. Merchants who felt payment was either too slow in coming or the risks of default too high could insist the buyer provide a note. The note was a more secure form of credit as it could be exchanged and, despite the likely loss on the note’s face value if the debtor was in financial trouble, would not represent a continuing worry of the merchant (Martin, 158-159).5

Figure 1

Accounts of Samuell Maxey, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
5/28/1748 To Maxey earthenware by Brock 62.00 5/30/1748 By cash & Leather 45.00
10/21/1748 To ditto by Cap’n Long 13.75 8/20/1748 By 2 quintals of fish @6-0-0 [per quintal] 12.00
5/25/1749 To ditto 61.75 11/15/1748 By cash received of Mr. Suttin 5.00
6/26/1749 To ditto 27.35 5/26/1749 By sundrys 74.75
10/1749 By cash of Mr. Kettel 9.75
12/1749 By ditto 18.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.7.

The settlement of debt obligations incorporated many forms of payment. Figure 1 details the activity between Samuell Maxey and Jonathan Parker, a Massachusetts merchant. Included are several purchases of earthenware by Maxey and others and several payments, including some in cash and goods as well as from third parties. Baxter (1945, 21) describes similar experiences when he says,

…the accounts over and over again tell of the creditor’s weary efforts to get his dues by accepting a tardy and halting series of odds and ends; and (as prices were often soaring, especially in 1740-64) the longer a debtor could put off payment, the fewer goods might he need to hand over to square a liability for so much money.

Repayment means and examples

The “odds and ends” included goods and commodity money as well as other cash, bills of exchange, and third party settlements (Baxter, 17-32). Merchants accepted goods such as pork beef, fish and grains for their store goods (Martin, 94). Flynn (2001) shows several items offered as payment, including goods, cash, notes and others, shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Percentage of Payments by Category

Repayment in Cash Repayment in Goods Repayment by note Repayment by Reckoning Repayment by third- party note Repayment by Bond Repayment by Labor


27.5 45.9 3.3 7.5 6.9 0.0 8.9
Mass. 24.2 47.6 2.8 7.5 13.7 0.2 2.3
Combined 25.6 46.9 3.0 7.5 10.9 0.1 5.0

Source: Adapted from Table 3.4 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Cash, goods and notes require no further explanation, but Table 2 shows other items used in payment as well. Colonists used labor to repay their tabs, working in their creditor’s field or lending the labor services of a child or yoke of oxen. Some accounts also list “reckoning,” which occurred typically between two merchants or traders that made purchases on credit from each other. Before the two merchants settled their accounts it was convenient to determine the net position of their accounts with each other. After making the determination the merchant in debt possibly made a payment that brought the balance to zero, but at other times the merchants proceeded without a payment but a better sense of the account position. Third parties also made payments that employed goods, money and credit. When the merchant did not want the particular goods offered in payment he could hope to pass them on, ideally to his own creditors. Such exchange satisfied both the merchant’s debts and the consumer’s (Baxter, 24-25). Figure 1 above and Figure 2 below illustrate this.

Figure 2

Accounts of Mr. Clark, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/27/1749 To Clark earthenware 10.85 11/30/1749 By cash 3.00
4/14/1750 By ditto 1.00
?/1762 By rum in full of Mr. Blanchard 6.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The accounts of Parker and his customer, Mr. Clark, show another purchase of earthenware and three payments. The purchase is clearly on credit as Parker recorded the first payment occurring over two months after the purchase. Clark provided two cash payments and then a third person Mr. Blanchard settled Clark’s account in full with rum. What do these third party payments represent? For answers to this we need to step back from the specifics of the account and generalize.

Figures 1 and 2 show credits from third parties in cash and goods. If we think in terms of three-way trade the answer becomes obvious. In Figure 1 where a Mr. Suttin pays £5.00 cash to Parker on the account of Samuell Maxey, Suttin is settling a debt with Maxey (in part or in full we do not know). To settle the debt he owes Parker, Maxey directs those who owe him money to pay Parker, and thus reduce his debt. Figure 2 displays the same type of activity, except Blanchard pays with rum. Though not depicted here, private debts between customers could be settled on the merchant’s books. Rather than offering payment in cash or goods, private parties could swap debt on the merchant’s account book, ordering a transfer from one account to another. The merchant’s final approval for the exchange implied something about the added risk from a third party exchange. The new person did not pose a greater default risk in the creditor’s opinion, otherwise (we would suspect) they refused the exchange.6

Complexity of the credit system

The payment system in the colonies was complex and dynamic with creditors allowing debtors to settle accounts in several fashions. Goods and money satisfied outstanding debts and other credit obligations deferred or transferred debts. Debtors and creditors employed the numerous forms of payment in regular and third party transactions, making merchants’ account books a clearinghouse for debts. Although the lack of technology leaves casual observers thinking payments at this time were primitive, such was clearly not the case. With only pen and paper eighteenth century merchants developed a sophisticated payment system, of which book credit and personal notes were an important part.

The Duration of Credit

The length of time outstanding for credit, its duration, is an important characteristic. Duration represents the amount of time a creditor awaited payment and anecdotal and statistical evidence provide some insights into the duration of book credit and promissory notes.

The calculation of the duration of book credit, or any similar type of instrument, is relatively straightforward when the merchant recorded dates in his account book conscientiously. Consider the following example.

Figure 3

Accounts of David Forthingham, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
10/1/1748 To Forthingham earthenware 7.75 10/1/1748 By cash 3.00
4/1749 By Indian corn 4.75

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The exchanges between Frothingham and Jonathan Parker show one purchase and two payments. Frothingham provides a partial payment for the earthenware at the time of purchase, in cash. However, £4.75 of debt remains outstanding, and is not repaid until April of 1749. It is possible to calculate a range of values for the final settlement of this account, using the first day of April to give a lower bound estimate and the last day to give an upper bound estimate. Counting the number of days shows that it took at least 182 days and at most 211 days to settle the debt. Alternatively the debt lasted between 6 and 7 months.

Figure 4

Accounts of Joseph Adams, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/7/1747 to Adams earthenware -30.65 11/9/1747 by cash 30.65
7/22/1748 to ditto -22.40 7/22/1748 by ditto 12.40
No Date7 by ditto 10.00

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.4.

Not all merchants were meticulous record keepers and sometimes they failed to record a particular date with the rest of an account book entry.8 Figure 4 illustrates this problem well and also provides an example of multiple purchases along with multiple payments. The first purchase of earthenware is repaid with one “cash” payment sixty-three days (2.1 months) later.9 Computation of the term of the second loan is more complicated. The last two payments satisfy the purchase amount, so Adams repaid the loan completely. Unfortunately, Parker left out the date for the second payment. The second payment occurred on or after July 22, 1748, so this date is the lower end of the interval. The minimum time between purchase and second payment is zero days, but computation of a maximum time, or upper bound, is not possible due to the lack of information.10

With a sufficient number of debts some generalization is possible. If we interpret the data as the length of a debt’s life we can use demographic methods, in particular the life table.11 For a sample of Connecticut and Massachusetts account books the average duration looks like the following.12

Table 3

Expected Duration for Connecticut Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Median lower bound (interval) eo upper bound (months) Median upper bound (interval)
All Values 14.79 6-12 15.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 15.22 6-12 15.99 6-12
0.25-0.50 14.28 6-12 15.51 6-12
0.50-0.75 15.24 6-12 18.01 6-12
0.75-1.00 14.25 6-12 15.94 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.95 6-12 15.07 6-12
10.00+ 7.95 0-6 10.73 6-12

Table 4

Expectation Duration for Massachusetts Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Lower bound median (interval) eo upper bound (months) Upper bound median (interval)
All Values 13.22 6-12 14.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 14.74 6-12 17.55 12-18
0.25-0.50 12.08 6-12 12.80 6-12
0.50-0.75 11.73 6-12 13.08 6-12
0.75-1.00 11.01 6-12 12.43 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.08 6-12 13.88 6-12
10.00+ 14.28 12-18 17.02 12-18

Source: Adapted from Tables 4.1 and 4.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 80.

For all debts in the sample from Connecticut, the expected length of time the debt is outstanding from its inception is estimated between 14.78 and 15.86 months. For Massachusetts the range is somewhat shorter, from 13.22 to 14.87 months. Tables 3 and 4 break the data into categories based on the value of the credit transaction as well. An important question to ask is whether this represents a long- term or a short-term debt? There is no standard yardstick for comparison in this case. The best comparison is likely the international credit granted to colonial merchants. The colonial merchants needed to repay these amounts and had to sell the goods to make remittances. The estimates of that credit duration, listed earlier, center around one year, which means that colonial merchants in New England needed to repay their British suppliers before they could expect to receive full payment from their customers. From the colonial merchants’ perspective book credit was certainly long-term.

Other estimates of duration of book credit

Other estimates of book credit’s duration vary. Consumers paying their credit purchases in kind took as little time as a few months or as long as several years (Martin, 153). Some accounting records show book credit remaining unsettled for nearly thirty years (Baxter, 161). Thomas Hancock often noted expected payment dates, such as “to pay in 6 months” along with a purchase, though frequently this was not enough time for the buyer. Thomas blamed the law, which allowed twelve months for people to make repayments, complaining to his suppliers that he often provided credit to country residents of “one two & more years” (Baxter, 192). Surely such a situation is the exception and not the rule, though it does serve to remind us that many of these arrangements were open, lacking definite endpoints. Some merchants allowed accounts to last as long as two years before examining the position of the account, allowing one year’s book credit without charge, and thereafter assessing interest (Martin, 157).

Duration of promissory notes

The duration of promissory notes is also important. Priest (1999) examines a form of duration for these credit instruments, estimating the time between a debtor’s signing of the note and the creditor’s filing of suit to collect payment. Of course this only measures the duration for notes that go into default and require legal recourse. Typically, a suit originated some 6 to 9 months after default (Priest, 2417-18). Results for the period 1724 to 1750 show 14.5% of cases occurred within 6 months after the initial contraction date, the execution of the debt. Merchants brought suit in more than 60% of the cases between 6 months and 3 years from execution, 21.4% from six to twelve months, 27.4% from one to two years and 14.1% from two to three years. Finally, more than 20% of the cases occurred more than three years from the execution of the debt. The median interval between execution and suit was 17.5 months (Priest, 2436, Table 3).

The duration of promissory notes provides an important complement to estimates of book credit’s term. Median estimates of 17.5 months make promissory notes, more than likely, a long-term credit instrument when balanced against the one year credit term given colonial importers. The estimates for book credit range between three months and several years in the literature to between 13 and 16 months in Flynn (2001) study. Duration results show that merchants waited significant amounts of time for payment, raising the issue of the time value of money and interest rates.

The Interest Practices of Merchants

In some cases credit was outstanding for a long period of time, but the accounts make no mention of any interest charges, as in Figures 1 through 4. Such an omission is difficult to reconcile with the fairly sophisticated business practices for the merchants of the day. Accounting research and manuals from the time demonstrate clearly an understanding of the time value of money. The business community understood the concept of compound interest. Account books allowed merchants to charge higher and variable prices for goods sold on book credit (Martin, 94). While in some cases interest charges entered the account book as an explicit entry in many others interest was an added or implicit charge contained in the good’s price.

Advertisements from the time make it clear that merchants charged less for goods

purchased by cash, and accounts paid promptly received a discount on the price,

One general pricing policy seems to have been that goods for cash were sold at a lower price than when they were charged. Cabel[sic] Bull advertised beaver hats at 27/ cash and 30/ country produce in hand. Daniel Butler of Northampton offered dyes, and “a few Cwt. of Redwood and Logwood cheaper than ever for ready money.” Many other advertisements carried allusions to the practice but gave no definite data. A daybook of the Ely store contained this entry for October 21, 1757: “William Jones, Dr to 6 yds Towcloth at 1/6—if paid in a month at 1/4. (Martin, 1939, 144-145)

Other advertisements also evidence a price difference, offering cash prices for certain grains they desired. Connecticut merchants likely offered good prices for products they thought would sell well as they sought remittances for their British creditors. Hartford merchants charged interest rates ranging from four and one-half to six and one-half percent in the 1750s and 1760s, though Flynn (2001) arrives at different rates from a different sample of New England account books (Martin, 158). Many promissory notes in South Carolina specified interest, though not an exact rate, usually just the term “lawful interest” (Woods, 364).

Estimates of interest rates

Simple regression analysis can help determine if interest was implicit in the price of goods sold on credit though there are numerous technical issues, such as borrower characteristics, market conditions and the quality of the good that make a discussion here inappropriate.13 In general, there seems to be a positive correlation, with the annual interest rates falling between 3.75% and 7%, which seem consistent with the results from interest entries made in account books. There is some tendency for the price of a good to increase with the time waited for repayment, though many other technical matters need resolution.

Most annual interest rates in Flynn’s (2001) study, explicit and implicit, fall in the range of 4 to 6.5 percent making them similar to those Martin found in her examination of accounts and roughly consistent with the Massachusetts lawful rate of 6 percent at the time, though some entries assess interest as high as 10 percent (Martin, 158; Rothenberg, 1992, 124). Despite this, the explicit rates are insufficient on their own to form a conclusion about the interest rate charged on book credit; there are too few entries, and many involve promissory notes or third parties, factors expected to alter the interest rate. Other factors such as borrower characteristics likely changed the assessed rate of interest too, with more prominent and wealthy individuals charged lower rates, either due to their status and a perceived lower risk, or possibly due to longer merchant-buyer relationships. Most account books do not contain information sufficient to judge the effects of these characteristics.

Merchants gained from credit use by charging higher prices; credit required a premium over cash sales and so the merchant collected interest and at the same time minimized the necessary amount of payments media (Martin, 94). Interest was distinct from the normal markups for insurance, freight, wharfage, etc. that were often significant additions to the overall price and represented an attempt to account for risk and the time value of money (Baxter, 192; Thomson, 239).14


Credit was significant as a form of payment in colonial America. Direct comparisons of the number of credit purchases versus barter or cash are not possible, but an examination of accounting records demonstrates credit’s widespread use. Credit was present in all forms of trade including international trade between England and her colonies. The domestic forms of credit were relatively long-term instruments that allowed individuals to consume beyond current means. In addition, book credit allowed colonists to economize on cash and other means of payment through transfers of credit, “reckoning,” and other means such as paying workers with store credit. Merchants also understood the time value of money, entering interest charges explicitly in the account books and implicitly as part of the price. The use of credit, the duration of credit instruments, and the methods of incorporating interest show credit as an important method of exchange and the economy of colonial America to be very complex and sophisticated.


Baxter, W.T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945.

Bridenbaugh, Carl. The Colonial Craftsman. Dover Publications: New York, 1990.

Egnal, Marc. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Flynn, David T. “Credit and the Economy of Colonial New England.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 2001.

McCusker, John J., and Russel R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Main, Jackson Turner. Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Martin, Margaret. “Merchants and Trade of the Connecticut River Valley, 1750-1820.” Smith College Studies in History. Department of History, Smith College: Northampton, Mass. 1939.

Parker, Jonathan. Account Book, 1747-1764. Mss:605 1747-1815. Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; Cambridge, Massachusetts

Perkins, Edwin J. The Economy of Colonial America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Perkins, Edwin J. American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Price, Jacob M. Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade: The View from the Chesapeake, 1700-1776. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Priest, Claire. “Colonial Courts and Secured Credit: Early American Commercial Litigation and Shays’ Rebellion.” Yale Law Journal 108, no. 8 (June, 1999): 2412-2450.

Rothenberg, Winifred. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Shepherd, James F. and Gary Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge: University Press 1972.

Thomson, Robert Polk. The Merchant in Virginia, 1700-1775. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1955.

Further Reading:

For a good introduction to credit’s importance across different professions, merchant practices and the development of business practices over time I suggest:

Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth-Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Schlesinger, Arthur. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution: 1763-1776. New York: Facsimile Library Inc., 1939.

For an introduction to issues relating to money supply, the unit of account in the economy, and price and exchange rate data I recommend:

Brock, Leslie V. The Currency of the American Colonies, 1700-1764: A Study in Colonial Finance and Imperial Relations. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

McCusker, John J. Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

McCusker, John J. How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Commodity Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States, Second Edition. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 2001.

1 Some authors note a small amount of cash purchases as well as small numbers of cash payments for debts as evidence of a lack of money (Bridenbaugh, 153; Baxter, 19n).

2 Presently, credit cards are a common form of payment. While such technology did not exist in the past, the merchant’s account book provided a means of recording credit purchases.

3 Price (1980, pp.16-17) provides an excellent summary of the advantages and risks of credit to different types of consumers and to merchants in both Britain and the colonies.

4 Please note that this table consists of transactions mostly between colonial retail merchants and colonial consumers in New England. Flynn (2001) uses account books that collectively span from approximately 1704 to 1770.

5 In some cases with the extension of book credit came a requirement to provide a note too. When the solvency of the debtor came into question the creditor, could sell the note and pass the risk of default on to another.

6 I offer a detailed example of such an exchange going sour for the merchant below.

7 “No date” is Flynn’s entry to show that a date is not recorded in the account book.

8 It seems that this frequently occurs at the end of a list of entries, particularly when the credit fully satisfies an outstanding purchase as in Figure 4.

9 To calculate months, divide days by 30. The term “cash” is placed in quotation marks as it is woefully nondescript. Some merchants and researchers using account books group several different items under the heading cash.

10 Students interested in historical research of this type should be prepared to encounter many situations of missing information. There are ways to deal with this censoring problem, but a technical discussion is not appropriate here.

11 Colin Newell’s Methods and Models in Demography (Guilford Press, 1988) is an excellent introduction for these techniques.

12 Note that either merchants recorded amounts in the lawful money standard or Flynn (2001) converted amounts into this standard for these purposes.

13 The premise behind the regression is quite simple: we look for a correlation between the amount of time an amount was outstanding and the per unit price of the good. If credit purchases contained implicit interest charges there would be a positive relationship. Note that this test implies forward looking merchants, that is, merchants factored the perceived or agreed upon time to repayment into the price of the good.

14 The advance varied by colony, good and time period,

In 1783, a Boston correspondent wrote Wadsworth that dry goods in Boston were selling at a twenty to twenty-five percent ‘advance’ from the ‘real Sterling Cost by Wholesale.’ The ‘advances’ occasionally mentioned in John Ely’s Day Book were far higher, seventy to seventy-five per cent on dry goods. Dry goods sold well at one hundred and fifty per cent ‘advance’ in New York in 1750… (Martin, 136).

In the 1720s a typical advance on piece goods in Boston was eighty per cent, seventy-five with cash (Martin, 136n). It should be noted that others find open account balances were commonly kept interest free (Rothenberg, 1992, 123).


Citation: Flynn, David. “Credit in the Colonial American Economy”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

Bankruptcy Law in the United States

Bradley Hansen, Mary Washington College

Since 1996 over a million people a year have filed for bankruptcy in the United States. Most seek a discharge of debts in exchange for having their assets liquidated for the benefit of their creditors. The rest seek the assistance of bankruptcy courts in working out arrangements with their creditors. The law has not always been so kind to insolvent debtors. Throughout most of the nineteenth century there was no bankruptcy law in the United States, and most debtors found it impossible to receive a discharge from their debts. Early in the century debtors could have expected even harsher treatment, such as imprisonment for debt.

Table 1. Chronology of Bankruptcy Law in The United States, 1789-1978

Date Event
1789 The Constitution empowers Congress to enact uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy.
1800 First bankruptcy law is enacted. The law allows only for involuntary bankruptcy of traders.
1803 First bankruptcy law is repealed amid complaints of excessive expenses and corruption.
1841 Second bankruptcy law is enacted in the wake of the Panics of 1837 and 1839. The law allows both voluntary and involuntary bankruptcy.
1843 1841 Bankruptcy Act is repealed, amid complaints about expenses and corruption.
1867 Prompted by demands arising from financial failures during the Panic of 1857 and the Civil War, Congress enacts the third bankruptcy law.
1874 The 1867 Bankruptcy Act is amended to allow for compositions.
1878 The 1867 Bankruptcy Law is repealed.
1881 The National Convention of Boards of Trade is formed to lobby for bankruptcy legislation.
1889 The National Convention of Representatives of Commercial Bodies is formed to lobby for bankruptcy legislation. The president of the Convention, Jay L. Torrey, drafts a bankruptcy bill.
1898 Congress passes a bankruptcy bill based on the Torrey bill.
1933-34 The 1898 Bankruptcy Act is amended to include railroad reorganization, corporate reorganization, and individual debtor arrangements.
1938 The Chandler Act amends the 1898 Bankruptcy Act, creating a menu of options for both business and non-business debtors.
1978 The 1898 Bankruptcy Act is replaced by The Bankruptcy Reform Act.

To say that there was no bankruptcy law in the United States for most of the nineteenth century is not to say that there were no laws governing insolvency or the collection of debts. Americans have always relied on credit and have always had laws governing the collection of debts. Debtor-creditor laws and their enforcement are important because they influence the supply and demand for credit. Laws that do not encourage the repayment of debts increase risk for creditors and reduce the supply of credit. On the other hand, laws that are too strict also have costs. Strict laws such as imprisonment for debt can discourage entrepreneurs from experimenting. Many of America’s most famous entrepreneurs, such as Henry Ford, failed at least once before making their fortunes.

Over the last two hundred years the United States has shifted from a legal regime that was primarily directed at the strict enforcement of debt contracts to one that provides numerous means to alter the terms of debt contracts. As the economy developed groups of people became convinced that strict enforcement of credit contracts was unfair, inefficient, contrary to the public interest, or simply not in their own self interest. Periodic financial crises in the nineteenth century generated demands for bankruptcy laws to discharge debts. They also led to the introduction of voluntary bankruptcy and the extension of the right to file for bankruptcy to all individuals. The expansion of interstate commerce in the late nineteenth century led to demands for a uniform and efficient bankruptcy law throughout the United States. The rise of railroads gave rise to a demand for corporate reorganization. The expansion of consumer credit in the twentieth century and the rise in consumer bankruptcy cases led to the introduction of arrangements into bankruptcy law, and continue to fuel demands for revision of bankruptcy law today.

Origins of American Bankruptcy Law

Like much of American law, the origins of both state laws for the collection of debt and federal bankruptcy law can be found in England. State laws are, in general, derived from common law procedures for the collection of debt. Under the common law a variety of procedures evolved to aid a creditor in collecting a debt. Generally, the creditor can obtain a judgment from a court for the amount that he is owed and then have a legal official seize some of the debtor’s property or wages to satisfy this judgement. In the past a defaulting debtor could also be placed in prison to coerce repayment. Bankruptcy law does not replace other collection laws but does supercede them. Creditors still use procedures such as garnishing a debtor’s wages, but if the debtor or another creditor files for bankruptcy such collection efforts are stopped.

Under the U.S. Constitution, adopted 1789, bankruptcy law became a federal law in the United States. There are two clauses of the Constitution that influenced the evolution of bankruptcy law. First, in Article One, Section Eight Congress was empowered to enact uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy. Second, the Contract Clause prohibited states from passing laws that impair the obligation of contracts. Courts have generally interpreted these clauses so as to give wide latitude to the federal government to alter the obligations of debt contracts while restricting state governments. States, however, are not completely barred from altering the terms of contracts. In its 1827 decision on Ogden vs. Saunders the Supreme Court declared that states could pass laws that granted a discharge for debts that were incurred after the law was passed; however, a state discharge can not be binding on creditors who are citizens of other states.

The evolution of bankruptcy law in the United States can be divided into two periods. In the first period, which encompasses most of the nineteenth century, Congress enacted three laws in the wake of financial crises. In each case the law was repealed within a few years amid complaints of high costs and corruption. The second period begins in 1881 when associations of merchants and manufacturers banded together to form a national association to lobby for a federal bankruptcy law. In contrast to previous demands for bankruptcy law, which were prompted largely by crises, late nineteenth century demands for bankruptcy law were for a permanent law suited to the needs of a commercial nation. In 1898 the Act to Establish a Uniform System of Bankruptcy was enacted and the United States has had a bankruptcy law ever since.

The Temporary Bankruptcy Acts of 1800, 1841 and 1867

Congress first exercised its power to enact uniform laws on bankruptcy in 1800. The debates in the Annals of Congress are brief but suggest that the demand for the law arose from individuals who were in financial distress. The law was modeled after the English bankruptcy law of the time. The law applied only to traders. Creditors could file a bankruptcy petition against a debtor, the debtor’s assets would be divided on a pro rata basis among his creditors, and the debtor would receive a discharge. Although debtors could not file a voluntary bankruptcy petition, it was generally believed that many debtors asked a friendly creditor to petition them into the bankruptcy court so that they could obtain a discharge. The law was intended to remain in effect for five years. Complaints that the law was expensive to administer, that it was difficult and costly to travel to federal courts, and that the law provided opportunities for fraud led to its repeal after only two years. Similar complaints were to follow the passage of subsequent bankruptcy laws.

Bankruptcy law largely disappeared from national politics until the Panic of 1839. A few petitions and memorials were sent to Congress in the wake of the Panic of 1819, but no law was passed. The Panic of 1839 and the recession that followed it brought forward a flood of petitions and memorials for bankruptcy legislation. Memorials typically declared that many business people had been brought to ruin by economic conditions that were beyond their control not through any fault of their own. In the wake of the Panic, Whigs made the attack on Democratic economic policies and the passage of bankruptcy relief central parts of their platform. After gaining control of Congress and the Presidency, the Whigs pushed through the 1841 Bankruptcy Act. The law went into effect February 2, 1842.

Like its predecessor, the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 was short-lived. The law was repealed March 3, 1843. The rapid about-face on bankruptcy was the result of the collapse of a bargain between Northern and Southern Whigs. Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the passage of the Act and supported its repeal. Southern Whigs also generally opposed a federal bankruptcy law. Northern Whigs appear to have obtained the Southern Whigs votes for passage by agreeing to distribute the proceeds from the sales of federal lands to the states. A majority of Southern Whigs voted for passage but then reversed their votes the next year. Despite its short life, over 41,000 petitions for bankruptcy, most of them voluntary, were filed under the 1841 law.

The primary innovations of the Bankruptcy Act of 1841 were the introduction of voluntary bankruptcy and the widening of the scope of occupations that could use the law. With the introduction of voluntary bankruptcy, debtors no longer had to resort to the assistance of a friendly creditor. Unlike the previous law in which only traders could become bankrupts, under the 1841 Act traders, bankers, brokers, factors, underwriters, and marine insurers could be made involuntary bankrupts and any person could apply for voluntary bankruptcy.

After repeal of the Bankruptcy Act of 1841, the subject of bankruptcy again disappeared from congressional consideration until the Panic of 1857, when appeals for a bankruptcy law resurfaced. The financial distress caused to Northern merchants by the Civil War further fueled demands for bankruptcy legislation. Though demands for a bankruptcy law persisted throughout the War, considerable opposition also existed to passing a law before the War was over. In the first Congress after the end of the War, the Bankruptcy Act of 1867 was enacted. The 1867 Act was amended several times and lasted longer than its predecessors. An 1874 amendment added compositions to bankruptcy law for the first time. Under the composition provision a debtor could offer a plan to distribute his assets among his creditors to settle the case. Again, complaints of excessive fees and expenses led to the repeal of the Bankruptcy Act in 1878. Table 2 shows the number of petitions filed under the 1867 law between 1867 and 1872.

Table 2. Bankruptcy Petitions, 1867-1872

Year Petitions
1867 7,345
1868 29,539
1869 5,921
1870 4,301
1871 5,438
1872 6,074

Source: Expenses of Proceedings in Bankruptcy In United States Courts. Senate Executive Document 19 (43-1) 1580.

During the first three quarters of the nineteenth century the demand for bankruptcy legislation rose with financial panics and fell as they passed. Many people came to believe that the forces that brought people to insolvency were often beyond their control and that to give them a fresh start was not only fair but in the best interest of society. Burdened with debts they had no hope of paying they had no incentive to be productive, creditors would take anything they earned. Freed from these debts they could once again become productive members of society. The spread of the belief that debtors should not be subjected to the harshest elements of debt collection law can also be seen in numerous state laws enacted during the nineteenth century. Homestead and exemption laws declared property that creditors could not take. Stay and moratoria laws were passed during recessions to stall collection efforts. Over the course of the nineteenth century, states also abolished imprisonment for debt.

Demand For A Permanent Bankruptcy Law

The repeal of the 1867 Bankruptcy Act was followed almost immediately by a well-organized movement to obtain a new Bankruptcy law. A national campaign by merchants and manufacturers to obtain bankruptcy legislation began in 1881 when The New York Board of Trade and Transportation organized a National Convention of Boards of Trade.The participants at the Convention endorsed a bankruptcy bill prepared by John Lowell, a judge from Massachusetts. They continued to lobby for the bill throughout the 1880s.

After failing to obtain passage of the Lowell bill, associations of merchants and manufacturers met again in 1889. Under the name of The National Convention of Representatives of Commercial Bodies they held meetings in St. Louis and in Minneapolis. The president of the Convention, a lawyer and businessman named Jay Torrey, drafted a bill that the Convention lobbied for throughout the 1890s. The bill allowed both voluntary and involuntary petitions, though wage earners and farmers could not be made involuntary bankrupts. The bill was primarily directed at liquidation but did include a provision for composition. A composition had to be approved by a majority of creditors in both number and value. In a compromise with states’ rights advocates, the bill declared that exemptions would be determined by the states.

The merchants and manufacturers, who organized the conventions, provided credit to their customers whenever they delivered goods in advance of payment. They were troubled by three features of state debtor-creditor laws. First, the details of collection laws varied from state to state, forcing them to learn the laws in all the states in which they wished to sell goods. Second, many state laws discriminated against foreign creditors, that is, creditors who were not citizens of the state. Third, many of the state laws provided for a first-come, first-served distribution of assets rather than a pro rata division. With the first-come, first-served rule, the first creditor to go to court could claim all the assets necessary to pay his debts leaving the last to receive nothing. The first-come, first-served rule of collection tended to create incentives for creditors to race to be the first to file a claim. The effect of this rule was described by Jay Torrey: “If a creditor suspects his debtor is in financial trouble, he usually commences an attachment suit, and as a result the debtor is thrown into liquidation irrespective of whether he is solvent or insolvent. This course is ordinarily imperative because if he does not pursue that course some other creditor will.” Thus the law could actually precipitate business failures. As interstate commerce expanded in the late nineteenth century more merchants and manufacturers experienced these three problems

Merchants and manufacturers also found it easier to form a national organization in the late nineteenth century because of the growth of trade associations, boards of trade, chambers of commerce and other commercial organizations. By forming a national organization composed of businessmen’s associations from all over the country, merchants and manufacturers were able to act in unison in drafting a bankruptcy bill and lobbying for a bankruptcy bill. The bill they drafted not only provided uniformity and a pro rata distribution, but was designed to prevent the excessive fees and expenses that had been a major complaint against previous bankruptcy laws.

As early as 1884, the Republican Party supported the bankruptcy bills put forward by the merchants and manufacturers. A majority in both the Republican and Democratic parties supported bankruptcy legislation during the late nineteenth century. It took nearly twenty years to enact bankruptcy legislation because they supported different versions of bankruptcy law. The Democratic Party supported bills that were purely voluntary (creditors could not initiate proceedings) and temporary (the law would only remain in effect for a few years). The requirement that the law be temporary was crucial to Democrats because a vote for a permanent bankruptcy law would have been a vote for the expansion of federal power and against states’ rights, a central component of Democratic policy. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, votes on bankruptcy split strictly along party lines. The majority of Republicans preferred the status quo to the Democrats bills and the majority of Democrats preferred the status quo to the Republican bills. Because control of Congress was split between the two parties for most of the last quarter of the nineteenth century neither side could force through their version of bankruptcy law. This period of divided government ended with the 55th Congress, in which the Bankruptcy Act of 1898 was passed.

Railroad Receivership and the Origins of Corporate Reorganization

The 1898 Bankruptcy Act was designed to aid creditors in liquidation of an insolvent debtor’s assets, but one of the important features of current bankruptcy law is the provision for reorganization of insolvent corporations. To find the origins of corporate reorganization one has to look outside the early evolution of bankruptcy law and look instead at the evolution of receiverships for insolvent railroads. A receiver is an individual appointed by a court to take control of some property, but courts in the nineteenth century developed this tool as a means to reorganize troubled railroads. The first reorganization through receivership occurred in 1846, when a Georgia court appointed a receiver over the insolvent Munroe Railway Co. and successfully reorganized it as the Macon and Western Railway. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century the number of receiverships increased dramatically; see Table 3. In theory, courts were supposed to appoint an indifferent party as receiver, and the receiver was merely to conserve the railroad while the best means to liquidate it was ascertained. In fact, judges routinely appointed the president, vice-president or other officers of the insolvent railway and assigned them the task of getting the railroad back on its feet. The object of the receivership was typically a sale of the railroad as a whole. But the sale was at least partly a fiction. The sole bidder was usually a committee of the bondholders using their bonds as payment. Thus the receivership involved a financial reorganization of the firm in which the bond and stock holders of the railroad traded in their old securities for new ones. The task of the reorganizers was to find a plan acceptable to the bondholders. For example, in the Wabash receivership of 1886, first mortgage bondholders ultimately agreed to exchange their 7 percent bonds for new ones of 5 percent. The sale resulted in the creation of a new railroad with the assets of the old. Often the transformation was simply a matter of changing “Railway” to “Railroad” in the name of the corporation. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries judges denied other corporations the right to reorganize through receivership. They emphasized that railroads were special because of their importance to the public.

Unlike the credit supplied by merchants and manufacturers, much of the debt of railroads was secured. For example, bondholders might have a mortgage that said they could claim a specific line of track if the railroad failed to make its bond payments. If a railroad became insolvent different groups of bondholders might claim different parts of the railroad. Such piecemeal liquidation of a business presented two problems in the case of railroads. First, many people believed that piecemeal liquidation would destroy much of the value of the assets. In his 1859 Treatise on the Law of Railways, Isaac Redfield explained that, “The railway, like a complicated machine, consists of a great number of parts, the combined action of which is necessary to produce revenue.” Second, railroads were regarded as quasi-public corporations. They were given subsidies and special privileges. Their charters often stated that their corporate status had been granted in exchange for service to the public. Courts were reluctant to treat railroads like other enterprises when they became insolvent and instead used receivership proceedings to make sure that the railroad continued to operate while its finances were reorganized.

Table 3. Railroad Receiverships, 1870-1897

Percentage of
Receiverships Mileage in Mileage put in
Year Established Receivership Receivership
1870 3 531 1
1871 4 644 1.07
1872 4 535 0.81
1873 10 1,357 1.93
1874 33 4,414 6.1
1875 43 7,340 9.91
1876 25 4,714 6.14
1877 33 3,090 3.91
1878 27 2,371 2.9
1879 12 1,102 1.27
1880 13 940 1.01
1881 5 110 0.11
1882 13 912 0.79
1883 12 2,041 1.68
1884 40 8,731 6.96
1885 44 7,523 5.86
1886 12 1,602 1.17
1887 10 1,114 0.74
1888 22 3,205 2.05
1889 24 3,784 2.35
1890 20 2,460 1.48
1891 29 2,017 1.18
1892 40 4,313 2.46
1893 132 27,570 15.51
1894 50 4,139 2.31
1895 32 3,227 1.78
1896 39 3,715 2.03
1897 21 1,536 0.83

Source: Swain, H. H. “Economic Aspects of Railroad Receivership.” Economic Studies 3, (1898): 53-161.

Depression Era Bankruptcy Reforms

Reorganization and bankruptcy were brought together by the amendments to the 1898 Bankruptcy Act during the Great Depression. By the late 1920s, a number of problems had become apparent with both the bankruptcy law and receivership. Table 4 shows the number of bankruptcy petitions filed each year since the law was enacted. The use of consumer credit expanded rapidly in the 1920s and so did wage earner bankruptcy cases. As Table 5 shows, voluntary bankruptcy by wage earners became an increasingly large proportion of bankruptcy petitions. Unlike mercantile bankruptcy cases, in many wage earner cases there were no assets. Expecting no return, many creditors paid little attention to bankruptcy cases and corruption spread in the bankruptcy courts. An investigation into bankruptcy in the southern district of New York recorded numerous abuses and led to the disbarment of of more than a dozen lawyers. In the wake of the investigation President Hoover appointed Thomas Thacher to investigate bankruptcy procedure in the United States. The Thacher Report recommended that an administrative staff be created to oversee bankruptcies. The bankruptcy administrators would be empowered to investigate bankrupts and reject requests for discharge. The report also suggested that many debtors could pay their debts if given an opportunity to work out an arrangement with their creditors. It suggested that procedures for the adjustment or extension of debts be added to the law. Corporate lawyers also identified three problems with the corporate receiverships. First, it was necessary to obtain an ancillary receivership in each federal district in which the corporation had assets. Second, some creditors might try to withhold their approval of a reorganization plan in exchange for a better deal for themselves. Third, judges were unwilling to apply reorganization through receivership to corporations other than railroads. Consequently, the Thacher report suggested that procedures for corporate reorganization also be incorporated into bankruptcy law.

Table 4. Bankruptcy Petitions Filed, 1899-1997

Petitions per Percentage
Year Voluntary Involuntary Total 10,000 Population Involuntary
1899 20,994 1,452 22,446 3.00 6.47
1900 20,128 1,810 21,938 2.88 8.25
1901 17,015 1,992 19,007 2.45 10.48
1902 16,374 2,108 18,482 2.33 11.41
1903 14,308 2,567 16,875 2.09 15.21
1904 13,784 3,298 17,082 2.08 19.31
1905 13,852 3,094 16,946 2.02 18.26
1906 10,526 2,446 12,972 1.52 18.86
1907 11,127 3,033 14,160 1.63 21.42
1908 13,109 4,709 17,818 2.01 26.43
1909 13,638 4,380 18,018 1.99 24.31
1910 14,059 3,994 18,053 1.95 22.12
1911 14,907 4,431 19,338 2.06 22.91
1912 15,313 4,432 19,745 2.07 22.45
1913 16,361 4,569 20,930 2.15 21.83
1914 17,924 5,035 22,959 2.32 21.93
1915 21,979 5,653 27,632 2.75 20.46
1916 23,027 4,341 27,368 2.68 15.86
1917 21,161 3,677 24,838 2.41 14.80
1918 17,261 3,124 20,385 1.98 15.32
1919 12,035 2,013 14,048 1.34 14.33
1920 11,333 2,225 13,558 1.27 16.41
1921 16,645 6,167 22,812 2.10 27.03
1922 28,879 9,286 38,165 3.47 24.33
1923 33,922 7,832 41,754 3.73 18.76
1924 36,977 6,542 43,519 3.81 15.03
1925 39,328 6,313 45,641 3.94 13.83
1926 40,962 5,412 46,374 3.95 11.67
1927 43,070 5,688 48,758 4.10 11.67
1928 47,136 5,928 53,064 4.40 11.17
1929 51,930 5,350 57,280 4.70 9.34
1930 57,299 5,546 62,845 5.11 8.82
1931 58,780 6,555 65,335 5.27 10.03
1932 62,475 7,574 70,049 5.61 10.81
1933 56,049 6,207 62,256 4.96 9.97
1934 58,888 4.66
1935 69,153 5.43
1936 60,624 4.73
1937 55,842 1,643 57,485 4.46 2.86
1938 55,137 2,169 57,306 4.41 3.78
1939 48,865 2,132 50,997 3.90 4.18
1940 43,902 1,752 45,654 3.46 3.84
1941 47,581 1,491 49,072 3.69 3.04
1942 44,366 1,295 45,661 3.41 2.84
1943 30,913 649 31,562 2.35 2.06
1944 17,629 277 17,906 1.35 1.55
1945 11,101 264 11,365 0.86 2.38
1946 8,293 268 8,561 0.61 3.13
1947 9,657 697 10,354 0.72 6.73
1948 13,546 1,029 14,575 1.00 7.06
1949 18,882 1,240 20,122 1.35 6.16
1950 25,263 1,369 26,632 1.76 5.14
1951 26,594 1,099 27,693 1.81 3.97
1952 25,890 1,059 26,949 1.73 3.93
1953 29,815 1,064 30,879 1.95 3.45
1954 41,335 1,398 42,733 2.65 3.27
1955 47,650 1,249 48,899 2.98 2.55
1956 50,655 1,240 51,895 3.10 2.39
1957 60,335 1,189 61,524 3.61 1.93
1958 76,048 1,413 77,461 4.47 1.82
1959 85,502 1,288 86,790 4.90 1.48
1960 94,414 1,296 95,710 5.43 1.35
1961 124,386 1,444 125,830 6.99 1.15
1962 122,499 1,382 123,881 6.77 1.12
1963 128,405 1,409 129,814 6.99 1.09
1964 141,828 1,339 143,167 7.60 0.94
1965 149,820 1,317 151,137 7.91 0.87
1966 161,840 1,165 163,005 8.42 0.72
1967 173,884 1,241 175,125 8.95 0.71
1968 164,592 1,001 165,593 8.39 0.60
1969 154,054 946 155,000 7.77 0.61
1970 161,366 1,085 162,451 8.07 0.67
1971 167,149 1,215 168,364 8.26 0.72
1972 152,840 1,094 153,934 7.33 0.71
1973 144,929 985 145,914 6.89 0.68
1974 156,958 1,009 157,967 7.39 0.64
1975 208,064 1,266 209,330 9.69 0.60
1976 207,926 1,141 209,067 9.59 0.55
1977 180,062 1,132 181,194 8.23 0.62
1978 167,776 995 168,771 7.58 0.59
1979 182,344 915 183,259 8.14 0.50
1980 359,768 1,184 360,952 15.85 0.33
1981 358,997 1,332 360,329 15.67 0.37
1982 366,331 1,535 367,866 15.84 0.42
1983 373,064 1,670 374,734 15.99 0.45
1984 342,848 1,447 344,295 14.57 0.42
1985 362,939 1,597 364,536 15.29 0.44
1986 476,214 1,642 477,856 19.86 0.34
1987 559,658 1,620 561,278 23.12 0.29
1988 593,158 1,409 594,567 24.27 0.24
1989 641,528 1,465 642,993 25.71 0.23
1990 723,886 1,598 725,484 29.03 0.22
1991 878,626 1,773 880,399 34.85 0.20
1992 971,047 1,443 972,490 38.08 0.15
1993 917,350 1,384 918,734 35.60 0.15
1994 844,087 1,170 845,257 32.43 0.14
1995 856,991 1,113 858,104 32.62 0.13
1996 1,040,915 1,195 1,042,110 39.26 0.11
1997 1,315,782 1,217 1,316,999 49.16 0.09

Sources: 1899-1938 Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States; 1939-1997; and Statistical Abstract of the United States. Various years. The Report of the Attorney General did not provide the numbers voluntary and involuntary from 1934-36.

Table 5. Wage Earner Bankruptcy and No Asset Cases, 1899-1933

Percentage of Cases
Year Wage Earners With No Assets
1899 5,288 51.12
1900 7,516 40.52
1901 7,068 48.99
1902 6,859 47.25
1903 4,852 41.36
1904 5,291 40.55
1905 5,426 40.75
1906 2,748 42.29
1907 3,257 42.11
1908 3,492 40.29
1909 3,528 38.46
1910 4,366 36.49
1911 4,139 48.14
1912 4,161 50.70
1913 4,863 49.63
1914 5,773 49.96
1915 6,632 49.88
1916 6,418 53.29
1917 7,787 57.12
1918 8,230 57.05
1919 6,743 64.53
1920 5,601 67.41
1921 5,897 65.66
1922 7,550 52.70
1923 10,173 61.10
1924 13,126 62.17
1925 14,444 61.23
1926 16,770 64.02
1927 18,494 64.86
1928 21,510 63.19
1929 25,478 67.34
1930 28,979 68.44
1931 29,698 69.15
1932 29,742 66.25
1933 27,385 62.76

Sources: 1899-1938 Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States; 1939-1997; and Statistical Abstract of the United States. Various years. The Report of the Attorney General did not provide the numbers voluntary and involuntary from 1934-36.

In 1933, Congress enacted amendments that allowed farmers and wage earners to seek arrangements. Arrangements offered more flexibility than compositions. Debtors could offer to pay all or part of their debts over a longer period of time. Congress also added section 77, which provided for railroad reorganization. Section 77 solved two of the problems that had plagued corporate reorganization. Bankruptcy courts had jurisdiction of the assets throughout the country so that ancillary receiverships were not needed. The amendment also alleviated the holdout problem by making 2/3 votes of a class of creditors binding on all the members of the class. In 1934, Congress extended reorganization to non-railroad corporations as well. The Thacher Report’s recommendations for a bankruptcy administrator were not enacted, largely because of opposition from bankruptcy lawyers. The 1898 Bankruptcy Act had created a well-organized group with a vested interest in the evolution of the law–bankruptcy lawyers.

Although the 1933-34 reforms were ones that bankruptcy lawyers and judges had wanted, many of them believed that the law could be further improved. In 1932, The Commercial Law League, the American Bar Association, the National Association of Credit Management and the National Association of Referees in Bankruptcy joined together to form the National Bankruptcy Conference. The culmination of their efforts was the Chandler Act of 1938. The Chandler Act created a menu of options for both individual and corporate debtors. Debtors could choose traditional liquidation. They could seek an arrangement with their creditors through Chapter 10 of the Act. They could attempt to obtain an extension through Chapter 12. A corporation could seek an arrangement through Chapter 11 or reorganization through Chapter 10. Chapter 11 only allowed corporations to alter their unsecured debt, whereas Chapter 10 allowed reorganization of both secured and unsecured debt. However, corporations tended to prefer Chapter 11 because Chapter 10 required Securities and Exchange Commission review for all publicly traded firms with more than $250,000 in liabilities.

By 1938 modern American bankruptcy law had obtained its central features. The law dealt with all types of individuals and businesses. It allowed both voluntary and involuntary petitions. It enabled debtors to choose liquidation and a discharge, or to choose some type of readjustment of their debts. By 1939, the vast majority of bankruptcy cases were, as they are now, voluntary consumer bankruptcy cases. After 1939 involuntary bankruptcy cases never again rose above 2,000. (See Table 4). The decline of involuntary bankruptcy cases appears to have been associated with the decline in business failures. According to Dun and Bradstreet, the number of failures per 10,000 listed concerns averaged 100 per year from 1870 to 1933. From 1934-1988 the failure rate averaged 50 per 10,000 concerns. The failure rate did not rise above 70 per 10,000 listed concerns again until the 1980s. Also, the number of failures, which had averaged over 20,000 a year in the 1920s did not reach 20,000 a year again until the 1980s. The mercantile failures which had so troubled late nineteenth century merchants and manufacturers were much less of a problem after the Great Depression.

Table 6. Business Failures, 1870-1997

Failures per
Year Failures 10,000 Firms
1870 3,546 83
1871 2,915 64
1872 4,069 81
1873 5,183 105
1874 5,830 104
1875 7,740 128
1876 9,092 142
1877 8,872 139
1878 10,478 158
1879 6,658 95
1880 4,735 63
1881 5,582 71
1882 6,738 82
1883 9,184 106
1884 10,968 121
1885 10,637 116
1886 9,834 101
1887 9,634 97
1888 10,679 103
1889 10,882 103
1890 10,907 99
1891 12,273 107
1892 10,344 89
1893 15,242 130
1894 13,885 123
1895 13,197 112
1896 15,088 133
1897 13,351 125
1898 12,186 111
1899 9,337 82
1900 10,774 92
1901 11,002 90
1902 11,615 93
1903 12,069 94
1904 12,199 92
1905 11,520 85
1906 10,682 77
1907 11,725 83
1908 15,690 108
1909 12,924 87
1910 12,652 84
1911 13,441 88
1912 15,452 100
1913 16,037 98
1914 18,280 118
1915 22,156 133
1916 16,993 100
1917 13,855 80
1918 9,982 59
1919 6,451 37
1920 8,881 48
1921 19,652 102
1922 23,676 120
1923 18,718 93
1924 20,615 100
1925 21,214 100
1926 21,773 101
1927 23,146 106
1928 23,842 109
1929 22,909 104
1930 26,355 122
1931 28,285 133
1932 31,822 154
1933 19,859 100
1934 12,091 61
1935 12,244 62
1936 9,607 48
1937 9,490 46
1938 12,836 61
1939 14,768 70
1940 13,619 63
1941 11,848 55
1942 9,405 45
1943 3,221 16
1944 1,222 7
1945 809 4
1946 1,129 5
1947 3,474 14
1948 5,250 20
1949 9,246 34
1950 9,162 34
1951 8,058 31
1952 7,611 29
1953 8,862 33
1954 11,086 42
1955 10,969 42
1956 12,686 48
1957 13,739 52
1958 14,964 56
1959 14,053 52
1960 15,445 57
1961 17,075 64
1962 15,782 61
1963 14,374 56
1964 13,501 53
1965 13,514 53
1966 13,061 52
1967 12,364 49
1968 9,636 39
1969 9,154 37
1970 10,748 44
1971 10,326 42
1972 9,566 38
1973 9,345 36
1974 9,915 38
1975 11,432 43
1976 9,628 35
1977 7,919 28
1978 6,619 24
1979 7,564 28
1980 11,742 42
1981 16,794 61
1982 24,908 88
1983 31,334 110
1984 52,078 107
1985 57,078 115
1986 61,616 120
1987 61,111 102
1988 57,098 98
1989 50,631 65
1990 60,747 74
1991 88,140 107
1992 97,069 110
1993 86,133 96
1994 71,558 86
1995 71,128 82
1996 71,931 86
1997 84,342 89

Source: United States. Historical Statistics of the United States: Bicentennial Edition. 1975; and United States. Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington D.C.: GPO. Various years.

The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978

In contrast to the decline in business failures, personal bankruptcy climbed steadily. Prompted by a rise in personal bankruptcy in the 1960s, Congress initiated an investigation of bankruptcy law that culminated in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, which replaced the much amended 1898 Bankruptcy Act. The Bankruptcy Reform Act, also known as the Bankruptcy Code or just “the Code”, maintains the menu of options for debtors embodied in the Chandler Act. It provides Chapter 7 liquidation for businesses and individuals, Chapter 11 reorganization, Chapter 13 adjustment of debts for individuals with regular income, and Chapter 12 readjustment for farmers. In 1991, seventy-one percent of all cases were Chapter 7 and twenty-seven percent were Chapter 13. Many of the changes introduced by the Code made bankruptcy, especially Chapter 13, more attractive to debtors. The number of bankruptcy petitions did climb rapidly after the law was enacted. Lobbying by creditor groups and a Supreme Court decision that ruled certain administrative parts of the Act unconstitutional led to the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984. The 1984 amendments attempted to roll back some of the pro-debtor provisions of the Code. Because bankruptcy filings continued their rapid ascent after the 1984, recent studies have tended to look toward changes in other factors, such as consumer finance, to explain the explosion in bankruptcy cases.

Bankruptcy law continues to evolve. To understand the evolution of bankruptcy law is to understand why groups of people came to believe that existing debt collection law was inadequate and to see how those people were able to use courts and legislatures to change the law. In the early nineteenth century demands were largely driven by victims of financial crises. In the late nineteenth century, merchants and manufacturers demanded a law that would facilitate interstate commerce. Unlike its predecessors, the 1898 Bankruptcy Act was not repealed after a few years and over time it gave rise to a group with a vested interest in bankruptcy law, bankruptcy lawyers. Bankruptcy lawyers have played a prominent role in drafting and lobbying for bankruptcy reform since the 1930s. Credit card companies and customers may be expected to play a significant role in changing bankruptcy law in the future.


Balleisen, Edward. Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2001.

Balleisen, Edward. “Vulture Capitalism in Antebellum America: The 1841 Federal Bankruptcy Act and the Exploitation of Financial Distress.” Business History Review 70, Spring (1996): 473-516

Berglof, Erik and Howard Rosenthal (1999) “The Political Economy of American Bankruptcy: The Evidence from Roll Call Voting, 1800-1978.” working paper, Princeton University.

Coleman, Peter J. Debtors and Creditors in America: Insolvency, Imprisonment for Debt, and Bankruptcy, 1607-1900. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin. 1974.

Hansen, Bradley. “The Political Economy of Bankruptcy: The 1898 Act to Establish A Uniform System of Bankruptcy.” Essays in Economic and Business History 15, (1997):155-71.

Hansen, Bradley. “Commercial Associations and the Creation of a National Economy: The Demand for Federal Bankruptcy Law.” Business History Review 72, Spring (1998): 86-113.

Hansen, Bradley. “The People’s Welfare and the Origins of Corporate Reorganization: The Wabash Receivership Reconsidered.” Business History Review 74, Autumn (2000): 377-405.

Martin, Albro. “Railroads and the Equity Receivership: An Essay on Institutional Change.” Journal of Economic History 34, (1974): 685-709.

Matthews, Barbara. Forgive Us Our Debts: Bankruptcy And Insolvency in America, 1763-1841. Ph. D. diss. Brown University. 1994.

Moss, David and Gibbs A. Johnson. “The Rise of Consumer Bankruptcy: Evolution, Revolution or Both?” American Bankruptcy Law Journal 73, Spring (1999): 311-51.

Sandage, Scott. Deadbeats, Drunkards and Dreamers: A Cultural History of Failure in America, 1819-1893. Ph. D. diss. Rutgers University. 1995.

Skeel, David A. “An Evolutionary Theory of Corporate Law and Corporate Bankruptcy.” Vanderbilt Law Review, 51 (1998):1325-1398.

Skeel, David A. “The Genius of the 1898 Bankruptcy Act.” Bankruptcy Developments Journal 15, (1999): 321-341.

Skeel, David A. Debt’s Dominion: A History of Bankruptcy Law in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2001.

Sullivan, Theresa, Elizabeth Warren and Jay Westbrook. As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989.

Swain, H.H. “Economic Aspects of Railroad Receivership.” Economic Studies 3, (1898): 53-161.

Tufano, Peter. “Business Failure, Judicial Intervention, and Financial Innovation: Restructuring U. S. Railroads in the Nineteenth Century.” Business History Review 71, Spring (1997):1-40.

United States. Report of the Attorney-General. Washington D.C.: GPO. Various years.

United States. Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington D.C.: GPO. Various years.

United States. Historical Statistics of the United States: Bicentennial Edition. 1975.

Warren, Charles. Bankruptcy In United States History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1935.

Citation: Hansen, Bradley. “Bankruptcy Law in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL

African Americans in the Twentieth Century

Thomas N. Maloney, University of Utah

The nineteenth century was a time of radical transformation in the political and legal status of African Americans. Blacks were freed from slavery and began to enjoy greater rights as citizens (though full recognition of their rights remained a long way off). Despite these dramatic developments, many economic and demographic characteristics of African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were not that different from what they had been in the mid-1800s. Tables 1 and 2 present characteristics of black and white Americans in 1900, as recorded in the Census for that year. (The 1900 Census did not record information on years of schooling or on income, so these important variables are left out of these tables, though they will be examined below.) According to the Census, ninety percent of African Americans still lived in the Southern US in 1900 — roughly the same percentage as lived in the South in 1870. Three-quarters of black households were located in rural places. Only about one-fifth of African American household heads owned their own homes (less than half the percentage among whites). About half of black men and about thirty-five percent of black women who reported an occupation to the Census said that they worked as a farmer or a farm laborer, as opposed to about one-third of white men and about eight percent of white women. Outside of farm work, African American men and women were greatly concentrated in unskilled labor and service jobs. Most black children had not attended school in the year before the Census, and white children were much more likely to have attended. So the members of a typical African American family at the start of the twentieth century lived and worked on a farm in the South and did not own their home. Children in these families were unlikely to be in school even at very young ages.

By 1990 (the most recent Census for which such statistics are available at the time of this writing), the economic conditions of African Americans had changed dramatically (see Tables 1 and 2). They had become much less concentrated in the South, in rural places, and in farming jobs and had entered better blue-collar jobs and the white-collar sector. They were nearly twice as likely to own their own homes at the end of the century as in 1900, and their rates of school attendance at all ages had risen sharply. Even after this century of change, though, African Americans were still relatively disadvantaged in terms of education, labor market success, and home ownership.

Table 1: Characteristics of Households in 1900 and 1990

1900 1990
Black White Black White
A. Region of Residence
South 90.1% 23.5% 53.0% 32.9%
Northeast 3.6% 31.8% 18.9% 20.9%
Midwest 5.8% 38.5% 18.9% 25.3%
West 0.5% 6.2% 9.2% 21.0%
B. Share Rural
75.8% 56.1% 11.9% 25.7%
C. Share of Homes Owner-Occupied
22.1% 49.2% 43.4% 67.3%

Based on household heads in Integrated Public Use Microdata Series Census samples for 1900 and 1990.

Table 2: Characteristics of Individuals in 1900 and 1990

1900 1990
Male Female Male Female
Black White Black White Black White Black White
A. Occupational Distribution
Professional/Technical 1.3% 3.8% 1.6% 10.7% 9.9% 17.2% 16.6% 21.9%
Proprietor/Manager/Official 0.8 6.9 0.2 2.6 6.5 14.7 5.4 10.0
Clerical 0.2 4.0 0.2 5.6 10.7 7.2 29.7 31.9
Sales 0.3 4.2 0.2 4.1 2.9 6.7 4.1 7.3
Craft 4.2 15.9 0 3.1 17.4 20.7 2.3 2.1
Operative 7.3 13.4 1.8 24.5 20.7 14.9 12.4 8.0
Laborer 25.5 14.0 6.5 1.5 12.2 7.2 2.0 1.5
Private Service 2.2 0.4 33.0 33.2 0.1 0 2.0 0.8
Other Service 4.8 2.4 20.6 6.6 18.5 9.0 25.3 15.8
Farmer 30.8 23.9 6.7 6.1 0.2 1.4 0.1 0.4
Farm Laborer 22.7 11.0 29.4 2.0 1.0 1.0 0.4 0.5
B. Percent Attending School by Age
Ages 6 to 13 37.8% 72.2% 41.9% 71.9% 94.5% 95.3% 94.2% 95.5
Ages 14 to 17 26.7 47.9 36.2 51.5 91.1 93.4 92.6 93.5
Ages 18 to 21 6.8 10.4 5.9 8.6 47.7 54.3 52.9 57.1

Based on Integrated Public Use Microdata Series Census samples for 1900 and 1990. Occupational distributions based on individuals aged 18 to 64 with recorded occupation. School attendance in 1900 refers to attendance at any time in the previous year. School attendance in 1990 refers to attendance since February 1 of that year.

These changes in the lives of African Americans did not occur continuously and steadily throughout the twentieth century. Rather, we can divide the century into three distinct eras: (1) the years from 1900 to 1915, prior to large-scale movement out of the South; (2) the years from 1916 to 1964, marked by migration and urbanization, but prior to the most important government efforts to reduce racial inequality; and (3) the years since 1965, characterized by government antidiscrimination efforts but also by economic shifts which have had a great impact on racial inequality and African American economic status.

1900-1915: Continuation of Nineteenth-Century Patterns

As was the case in the 1800s, African American economic life in the early 1900s centered on Southern cotton agriculture. African Americans grew cotton under a variety of contracts and institutional arrangements. Some were laborers hired for a short period for specific tasks. Many were tenant farmers, renting a piece of land and some of their tools and supplies, and paying the rent at the end of the growing season with a portion of their harvest. Records from Southern farms indicate that white and black farm laborers were paid similar wages, and that white and black tenant farmers worked under similar contracts for similar rental rates. Whites in general, however, were much more likely to own land. A similar pattern is found in Southern manufacturing in these years. Among the fairly small number of individuals employed in manufacturing in the South, white and black workers were often paid comparable wages if they worked at the same job for the same company. However, blacks were much less likely to hold better-paying skilled jobs, and they were more likely to work for lower-paying companies.

While the concentration of African Americans in cotton agriculture persisted, Southern black life changed in other ways in the early 1900s. Limitations on the legal rights of African Americans grew more severe in the South in this era. The 1896 Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson provided a legal basis for greater explicit segregation in American society. This decision allowed for the provision of separate facilities and services to blacks and whites as long as the facilities and services were equal. Through the early 1900s, many new laws, known as Jim Crow laws, were passed in Southern states creating legally segregated schools, transportation systems, and lodging. The requirement of equality was not generally enforced, however. Perhaps the most important and best-known example of separate and unequal facilities in the South was the system of public education. Through the first decades of the twentieth century, resources were funneled to white schools, raising teacher salaries and per-pupil funding while reducing class size. Black schools experienced no real improvements of this type. The result was a sharp decline in the relative quality of schooling available to African-American children.

1916-1964: Migration and Urbanization

The mid-1910s witnessed the first large-scale movement of African Americans out of the South. The share of African Americans living in the South fell by about four percentage points between 1910 and 1920 (with nearly all of this movement after 1915) and another six points between 1920 and 1930 (see Table 3). What caused this tremendous relocation of African Americans? The worsening political and social conditions in the South, noted above, certainly played a role. But the specific timing of the migration appears to be connected to economic factors. Northern employers in many industries faced strong demand for their products and so had a great need for labor. Their traditional source of cheap labor, European immigrants, dried up in the late 1910s as the coming of World War I interrupted international migration. After the end of the war, new laws limiting immigration to the US would keep the flow of European labor at a low level. Northern employers thus needed a new source of cheap labor, and they turned to Southern blacks. In some cases, employers would send recruiters to the South to find workers and to pay their way North. In addition to this pull from the North, economic events in the South served to push out many African Americans. Destruction of the cotton crop by the boll weevil, an insect that feeds on cotton plants, and poor weather in some places during these years made new opportunities in the North even more attractive.

Table 3: Share of African Americans Residing in the South

Year Share Living in South
1890 90%
1900 90%
1910 89%
1920 85%
1930 79%
1940 77%
1950 68%
1960 60%
1970 53%
1980 53%
1990 53%

Sources: 1890 to 1960: Historical Statistics of the United States, volume 1, pp. 22-23; 1970: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1973, p. 27; 1980: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1985, p. 31; 1990: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1996, p. 31.

Pay was certainly better, and opportunities were wider, in the North. Nonetheless, the region was not entirely welcoming to these migrants. As the black population in the North grew in the 1910s and 1920s, residential segregation grew more pronounced, as did school segregation. In some cases, racial tensions boiled over into deadly violence. The late 1910s were scarred by severe race riots in a number of cities, including East St. Louis (1917) and Chicago (1919).

Access to Jobs in the North

Within the context of this broader turmoil, black migrants did gain entry to new jobs in Northern manufacturing. As in Southern manufacturing, pay differences between blacks and whites working the same job at the same plant were generally small. However, black workers had access to a limited set of jobs and remained heavily concentrated in unskilled laborer positions. Black workers gained admittance to only a limited set of firms, as well. For instance, in the auto industry, the Ford Motor Company hired a tremendous number of black workers, while other auto makers in Detroit typically excluded these workers. Because their alternatives were limited, black workers could be worked very intensely and could also be used in particularly unpleasant and dangerous settings, such as the killing and cutting areas of meat packing plants, foundry departments in auto plants, and blast furnaces in steel plants.


Through the 1910s and 1920s, relations between black workers and Northern labor unions were often antagonistic. Many unions in the North had explicit rules barring membership by black workers. When faced with a strike (or the threat of a strike), employers often hired in black workers, knowing that these workers were unlikely to become members of the union or to be sympathetic to its goals. Indeed, there is evidence that black workers were used as strike breakers in a great number of labor disputes in the North in the 1910s and 1920s. Beginning in the mid-1930s, African Americans gained greater inclusion in the union movement. By that point, it was clear that black workers were entrenched in manufacturing, and that any broad-based organizing effort would have to include them.

Conditions around 1940

As is apparent in Table 3, black migration slowed in the 1930s, due to the onset of the Great Depression and the resulting high level of unemployment in the North in the 1930s. Beginning in about 1940, preparations for war again created tight labor markets in Northern cities, though, and, as in the late 1910s, African Americans journeyed north to take advantage of new opportunities. In some ways, moving to the North in the 1940s may have appeared less risky than it had during the World War I era. By 1940, there were large black communities in a number of Northern cities. Newspapers produced by these communities circulated in the South, providing information about housing, jobs, and social conditions. Many Southern African Americans now had friends and relatives in the North to help with the transition.

In other ways, though, labor market conditions were less auspicious for black workers in 1940 than they had been during the World War I years. Unemployment remained high in 1940, with about fourteen percent of white workers either unemployed or participating in government work relief programs. Employers hired these unemployed whites before turning to African American labor. Even as labor markets tightened, black workers gained little access to war-related employment. The President issued orders in 1941 that companies doing war-related work had to hire in a non-discriminatory way, and the Fair Employment Practice Committee was created to monitor the hiring practices of these companies. Initially, few resources were devoted to this effort, but in 1943 the government began to enforce fair employment policies more aggressively. These efforts appear to have aided black employment, at least for the duration of the war.

Gains during the 1940s and 1950s

In 1940, the Census Bureau began to collect data on individual incomes, so we can track changes in black income levels and in black/white income ratios in more detail from this date forward. Table 4 provides annual earnings figures for black and white men and women from 1939 (recorded in the 1940 Census) to 1989 (recorded in the 1990 Census). The big gains of the 1940s, both in level of earnings and in the black/white income ratio, are very obvious. Often, we focus on the role of education in producing higher earnings, but the gap between average schooling levels for blacks and whites did not change much in the 1940s (particularly for men), so schooling levels could not have contributed too much to the relative income gains for blacks in the 1940s (see Table 5). Rather, much of the improvement in the black/white pay ratio in this decade simply reflects ongoing migration: blacks were leaving the South, a low-wage region, and entering the North, a high-wage region. Some of the improvement reflects access to new jobs and industries for black workers, due to the tight labor markets and antidiscrimination efforts of the war years.

Table 4: Mean Annual Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers

Aged 20 and Over



Black White Ratio Black White Ratio
1939 $537.45 $1234.41 .44 $331.32 $771.69 .43
1949 1761.06 2984.96 .59 992.35 1781.96 .56
1959 2848.67 5157.65 .55 1412.16 2371.80 .59
1969 5341.64 8442.37 .63 3205.12 3786.45 .85
1979 11404.46 16703.67 .68 7810.66 7893.76 .99
1989 19417.03 28894.69 .67 15319.29 16135.65 .95

Source: Integrated Public Use Microdata Series Census samples for 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990. Includes only those with non-zero earnings who were not in school. All figures are in current (nominal) dollars.

Table 5: Years of School Attended for Individuals 20 and Over



Black White Difference Black White Difference
1940 5.9 9.1 3.2 6.9 10.5 3.6
1950 6.8 9.8 3 7.8 10.8 3
1960 7.9 10.5 2.6 8.8 11.0 2.2
1970 9.4 11.4 2.0 10.3 11.7 1.4
1980 11.2 12.5 1.3 11.8 12.4 0.6

Source: Integrated Public Use Microdata Series Census samples for 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, and 1980. Based on highest grade attended by wage and salary workers aged 20 and over who had non-zero earnings in the previous year and who were not in school at the time of the census. Comparable figures are not available in the 1990 Census.

Black workers relative incomes were also increased by some general changes in labor demand and supply and in labor market policy in the 1940s. During the war, demand for labor was particularly strong in the blue-collar manufacturing sector. Workers were needed to build tanks, jeeps, and planes, and these jobs did not require a great deal of formal education or skill. In addition, the minimum wage was raised in 1945, and wartime regulations allowed greater pay increases for low-paid workers than for highly-paid workers. After the war, the supply of college-educated workers increased dramatically. The GI Bill, passed in 1944, provided large subsidies to help pay the expenses of World War II veterans who wanted to attend college. This policy helped a generation of men further their education and get a college degree. So strong labor demand, government policies that raised wages at the bottom, and a rising supply of well-educated workers meant that less-educated, less-skilled workers received particularly large wage increases in the 1940s. Because African Americans were concentrated among the less-educated, low-earning workers, these general economic forces were especially helpful to African Americans and served to raise their pay relative to that of whites.

The effect of these broader forces on racial inequality helps to explain the contrast between the 1940s and 1950s evident in Table 4. The black-white pay ratio may have actually fallen a bit for men in the 1950s, and it rose much more slowly in the 1950s than in the 1940s for women. Some of this slowdown in progress reflects weaker labor markets in general, which reduced black access to new jobs. In addition, the general narrowing of the wage distribution that occurred in the 1940s stopped in the 1950s. Less-educated, lower-paid workers were no longer getting particularly large pay increases. As a result, blacks did not gain ground on white workers. It is striking that pay gains for black workers slowed in the 1950s despite a more rapid decline in the black-white schooling gap during these years (Table 5).


On the whole, migration and entry to new industries played a large role in promoting black relative pay increases through the years from World War I to the late 1950s. However, these changes also had some negative effects on black labor market outcomes. As black workers left Southern agriculture, their relative rate of unemployment rose. For the nation as a whole, black and white unemployment rates were about equal as late as 1930. This equality was to a great extent the result of lower rates of unemployment for everyone in the rural South relative to the urban North. Farm owners and sharecroppers tended not to lose their work entirely during weak markets, whereas manufacturing employees might be laid off or fired during downturns. Still, while unemployment was greater for everyone in the urban North, it was disproportionately greater for black workers. Their unemployment rates in Northern cities were much higher than white unemployment rates in the same cities. One result of black migration, then, was a dramatic increase in the ratio of black unemployment to white unemployment. The black/white unemployment ratio rose from about 1 in 1930 (indicating equal unemployment rates for blacks and whites) to about 2 by 1960. The ratio remained at this high level through the end of the twentieth century.

1965-1999: Civil Rights and New Challenges

In the 1960s, black workers again began to experience more rapid increases in relative pay levels (see Table 4). These years also marked a new era in government involvement in the labor market, particularly with regard to racial inequality and discrimination. One of the most far-reaching changes in government policy regarding race actually occurred a bit earlier, in the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional. However, substantial desegregation of Southern schools (and some Northern schools) would not take place until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

School desegregation, therefore, was probably not a primary force in generating the relative pay gains of the 1960s and 1970s. Other anti-discrimination policies enacted in the mid-1960s did play a large role, however. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in a broad set of social arenas. Title VII of this law banned discrimination in hiring, firing, pay, promotion, and working conditions and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate complaints of workplace discrimination. A second policy, Executive Order 11246 (issued by President Johnson in 1965), set up more stringent anti-discrimination rules for businesses working on government contracts. There has been much debate regarding the importance of these policies in promoting better jobs and wages for African Americans. There is now increasing agreement that these policies had positive effects on labor market outcomes for black workers at least through the mid-1970s. Several pieces of evidence point to this conclusion. First, the timing is right. Many indicators of employment and wage gains show marked improvement beginning in 1965, soon after the implementation of these policies. Second, job and wage gains for black workers in the 1960s were, for the first time, concentrated in the South. Enforcement of anti-discrimination policy was targeted on the South in this era. It is also worth noting that rates of black migration out of the South dropped substantially after 1965, perhaps reflecting a sense of greater opportunity there due to these policies. Finally, these gains for black workers occurred simultaneously in many industries and many places, under a variety of labor market conditions. Whatever generated these improvements had to come into effect broadly at one point in time. Federal antidiscrimination policy fits this description.

Return to Stagnation in Relative Income

The years from 1979 to 1989 saw the return of stagnation in black relative incomes. Part of this stagnation may reflect the reversal of the shifts in wage distribution that occurred during the 1940s. In the late 1970s and especially in the 1980s, the US wage distribution grew more unequal. Individuals with less education, particularly those with no college education, saw their pay decline relative to the better-educated. Workers in blue-collar manufacturing jobs were particularly hard hit. The concentration of black workers, especially black men, in these categories meant that their pay suffered relative to that of whites. Another possible factor in the stagnation of black relative pay in the 1980s was weakened enforcement of antidiscrimination policies at this time.

While black relative incomes stagnated on average, black residents of urban centers suffered particular hardships in the 1970s and 1980s. The loss of blue-collar manufacturing jobs was most severe in these areas. For a variety of reasons, including the introduction of new technologies that required larger plants, many firms relocated their production facilities outside of central cities, to suburbs and even more peripheral areas. Central cities increasingly became information-processing and financial centers. Jobs in these industries generally required a college degree or even more education. Despite decades of rising educational levels, African Americans were still barely half as likely as whites to have completed four years of college or more: in 1990, 11.3% of blacks over the age of 25 had four years of college or more, versus 22% of whites. As a result of these developments, many blacks in urban centers found themselves surrounded by jobs for which they were poorly qualified, and at some distance from the types of jobs for which they were qualified, the jobs their parents had moved to the city for in the first place. Their ability to relocate near these blue-collar jobs seems to have been limited both by ongoing discrimination in the housing market and by a lack of resources. Those African Americans with the resources to exit the central city often did so, leaving behind communities marked by extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Over the fifty years from 1939 to 1989, through these episodes of gain and stagnation, the ratio of black mens average annual earnings to white mens average annual earnings rose about 23 points, from .44 to .67. The timing of improvement in the black female/ white female income ratio was similar. However, black women gained much more ground overall: the black-white income ratio for women rose 50 points over these fifty years and stood at .95 in 1989 (down from .99 in 1979). The education gap between black women and white women declined more than the education gap between black and white men, which contributed to the faster pace of improvement in black womens relative earnings. Furthermore, black female workers were more likely to be employed full-time than were white female workers, which raised their annual income. The reverse was true among men: white male workers were somewhat more likely to be employed full time than were black male workers.

Comparable data on annual incomes from the 2000 Census are not available at the time of this writing. Evidence from other labor market surveys suggests that the tight labor markets of the late 1990s may have brought renewed relative pay gains for black workers. Black workers also experienced sharp declines in unemployment during these years, though black unemployment remained about twice as great as white unemployment.

Beyond the Labor Market: Persistent Gaps in Wealth and Health

When we look beyond these basic measures of labor market success, we find more disturbingly large and persistent gaps between African Americans and white Americans. Wealth differences between blacks and whites continue to be very large. In the mid-1990s, black households held only about one-quarter the amount of wealth that white households held, on average. If we leave out equity in ones home and personal possessions and focus on more strictly financial, income-producing assets, black households held only about ten to fifteen percent as much wealth as white households. Big differences in wealth holding remain even if we compare black and white households with similar incomes.

Much of this wealth gap reflects the ongoing effects of the historical patterns described above. When freed from slavery, African Americans held no wealth, and their lower incomes prevented them from accumulating wealth at the rate whites did. African Americans found it particularly difficult to buy homes, traditionally a households most important asset, due to discrimination in real estate markets. Government housing policies in the 1930s and 1940s may have also reduced their rate of home-buying. While the federal government made low interest loans and loan insurance available through the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Authority, these programs generally could not be used to acquire homes in black or mixed neighborhoods, usually the only neighborhoods in which blacks could buy, because these were considered to be areas of high-risk for loan default. Because wealth is passed on from parents to children, the wealth differences of the mid-twentieth century continue to have an important impact today.

Differences in life expectancy have also proven to be remarkably stubborn. Certainly, black and white mortality patterns are more similar today than they once were. In 1929, the first year for which national figures are available, white life expectancy at birth was 58.6 years and black life expectancy was 46.7 years (for men and women combined). By 2000, white life expectancy had risen to 77.4 years and black life expectancy was 71.8 years. Thus, the black-white gap had fallen from about twelve years to less than six. However, almost all of this reduction in the gap was completed by the early 1960s. In 1961, the black-white gap was 6.5 years. The past forty years have seen very little change in the gap, though life expectancy has risen for both groups.

Some of this remaining difference in life expectancy can be traced to income differences between blacks and whites. Black children face a particularly high risk of accidental death in the home, often due to dangerous conditions in low-quality housing. African Americans of all ages face a high risk of homicide, which is related in part to residence in poor neighborhoods. Among older people, African Americans face high risk of death due to heart disease, and the incidence of heart disease is correlated with income. Still, black-white mortality differences, especially those related to disease, are complex and are not yet fully understood.

Infant mortality is a particularly large and particularly troubling form of health difference between blacks and whites.

In 2000 the white infant mortality rate (5.7 per 1000 live births) was less than half the rate for African Americans (14.0 per 1000). Again, some of this mortality difference is related to the effect of lower incomes on the nutrition, medical care, and living conditions available to African American mothers and newborns. However, the full set of relevant factors is the subject of ongoing research.

Summary and Conclusions

It is undeniable that the economic fortunes of African Americans changed dramatically during the twentieth century. African Americans moved from tremendous concentration in Southern agriculture to much greater diversity in residence and occupation. Over the period in which income can be measured, there are large increases in black incomes in both relative and absolute terms. Schooling differentials between blacks and whites fell sharply, as well. When one looks beyond the starting and ending points, though, more complex realities present themselves. The progress that we observe grew out of periods of tremendous social upheaval, particularly during the world wars. It was shaped in part by conflict between black workers and white workers, and it coincided with growing residential segregation. It was not continuous and gradual. Rather, it was punctuated by periods of rapid gain and periods of stagnation. The rapid gains are attributable to actions on the part of black workers (especially migration), broad economic forces (especially tight labor markets and narrowing of the general wage distribution), and specific antidiscrimination policy initiatives (such as the Fair Employment Practice Committee in the 1940s and Title VII and contract compliance policy in the 1960s). Finally, we should note that this century of progress ended with considerable gaps remaining between African Americans and white Americans in terms of income, unemployment, wealth, and life expectancy.


Butler, Richard J., James J. Heckman, and Brook Payner. “The Impact of the Economy and the State on the Economic Status of Blacks: A Study of South Carolina.” In Markets in History: Economic Studies of the Past, edited by David W. Galenson, 52-96. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Collins, William J. “Race, Roosevelt, and Wartime Production: Fair Employment in World War II Labor Markets.” American Economic Review 91, no. 1 (2001): 272-86.

Conley, Dalton. Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Donohue, John H. III, and James Heckman. “Continuous vs. Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks.” Journal of Economic Literature 29, no. 4 (1991): 1603-43.

Goldin, Claudia, and Robert A. Margo. “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 1 (1992): 1-34.

Halcoussis, Dennis and Gary Anderson. “The Political Economy of Legal Segregation: Jim Crow and Racial Employment Patterns.” Economics and Politics 8, no. 1 (1996): 1-15.

Herbst, Alma. The Negro in the Slaughtering and Meat Packing Industry in Chicago. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.

Higgs, Robert. Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy 1865-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Jaynes, Gerald David and Robin M. Williams, Jr., editors. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

Johnson, Daniel M. and Rex R. Campbell. Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981.

Juhn, Chinhui, Kevin M. Murphy, and Brooks Pierce. “Accounting for the Slowdown in Black-White Wage Convergence.” In Workers and Their Wages: Changing Patterns in the United States, edited by Marvin H. Kosters, 107-43. Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1991.

Kaminski, Robert, and Andrea Adams. Educational Attainment in the US: March 1991 and 1990 (Current Population Reports P20-462). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, May 1992.

Kasarda, John D. Urban Industrial Transition and the Underclass. In The Ghetto Underclass: Social Science Perspectives, edited by William J. Wilson, 43-64. Newberry Park, CA: Russell Sage, 1993.

Kennedy, Louise V. The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward: The Effects of Recent Migrations to Northern Centers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1930.

Leonard, Jonathan S. “The Impact of Affirmative Action Regulation and Equal Employment Law on Black Employment.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 4, no. 4 (1990): 47-64.

Maloney, Thomas N. “Wage Compression and Wage Inequality between Black and White Males in the United States, 1940-1960.” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 2 (1994): 358-81.

Maloney, Thomas N. “Racial Segregation, Working Conditions, and Workers’ Health: Evidence from the A.M. Byers Company, 1916-1930.” Explorations in Economic History 35, no. 3 (1998): 272-295.

Maloney, Thomas N., and Warren C. Whatley. “Making the Effort: The Contours of Racial Discrimination in Detroit’s Labor Markets, 1920-1940.” Journal of Economic History 55, no. 3 (1995): 465-93.

Margo, Robert A. Race and Schooling in the South, 1880-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Margo, Robert A. “Explaining Black-White Wage Convergence, 1940-1950.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 48, no. 3 (1995): 470-81.

Marshall, Ray F. The Negro and Organized Labor. NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1965.

Minino, Arialdi M., and Betty L. Smith. “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2000″ National Vital Statistics Reports 49, no. 12 (2001).

Oliver, Melvin L., and Thomas M. Shapiro. Race and Wealth. Review of Black Political Economy 17, no. 4 (1989): 5-25.

Ruggles, Steven, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 2.0. Minneapolis: Social Historical Research Laboratory, University of Minnesota, 1997.

Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Sundstrom, William A. “Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (1992): 416-29.

United States Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1973 (94th Edition). Washington, DC: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1973.

United States Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. Washington, DC: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1975.

United States Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1985 (105th Edition). Washington, DC: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1985.

United States Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1996 (116th Edition). Washington, DC: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1996.

Vedder, Richard K. and Lowell Gallaway. “Racial Differences in Unemployment in the United States, 1890-1980.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 3 (1992): 696-702.

Whatley, Warren C. “African-American Strikebreaking from the Civil War to the New Deal.” Social Science History 17, no. 4 (1993): 525-58.

Wilson, William J. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. NY: Basic Books, 1986.

Citation: Maloney, Thomas. “African Americans in the Twentieth Century”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 14, 2002. URL

The American Technological Challenge: Stagnation and Decline in the 21st Century

Author(s):Vijg, Jan
Reviewer(s):Mokyr, Joel

Published by EH.Net (April 2013)

Jan Vijg, The American Technological Challenge: Stagnation and Decline in the 21st Century.? New York: Algora Publishing, 2011.? 248 pp.? $33 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-87586-886-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joel Mokyr, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University.

Jan Vijg is a Dutch-born leading molecular geneticist at one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the nation.? He displays an insatiable appetite for history and technology and an intellectual curiosity that would do credit to the most interdisciplinary of economic historians.? He is also well-read, thoughtful, and articulate, and asks excellent questions.? The result is a thought-provoking and lively ?big picture? book, ideal for undergraduate teachers who want to introduce young students without a strong background in economics and history to global history.?

This book, like a pearl, was born out of irritation.? As a young man, Vijg read a lot of science fiction, which made him think that the world of the future would be full of technological wonders, such as manned space flight, time travel, flying cars, immortality, and one hundred percent dependence on non-hydrocarbon energy.? None of these things have materialized to date, and Vijg at times sounds disappointed that his modern car is not much different from the cars he learned to drive in the 1960s, that airplane flights today are not much faster than the Boeing 707’s of his youth, and that even in medicine, his field of expertise, the rate of technological progress has slowed down.? The exciting technological hustle and bustle of earlier times, he feels, has disappeared.? We are simply coasting along, driven by momentum, but truly revolutionary macroinventions have disappeared and in his view are unlikely to re-appear.? Technological stagnation, or at best technological creep, awaits us.

Vijg is far too sophisticated a thinker to turn this book into a Jeremiad in the style of Daniel Cohen?s recent The Prosperity of Vice: A Worried View of Economics (2012).? He notes that with the technology of the twenty-first century the industrialized West has already secured an unimaginable standard of living, and that prosperity is slowly but inexorably spreading to the rest of the world.? Despite pockets of violence, the world is largely at peace, and most existentialist threats to our golden age such as nuclear terrorism are dismissed as unlikely.? Climate change and an asteroid strike, to be sure, are threats, but on the whole he realizes that the slow-down is the result of our success.? Many of humanity?s most pressing needs ? high-quality food in abundant supply, comfortable shelter, entertainment, information and so on ? are increasingly met with our existing technology.? Yet the boyish and adventurous streak in him wants more: space-travel (or at least hypersonic flights), instant-made textiles, radically different sources of energy, and household robots that obey our whims.? None of this, he claims, is forthcoming.? The IT revolution, he submits, offers scant compensation for those disappointed dreams.? As Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal once put it, ?we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.?

To understand his disappointment, he looks at the history of technology summarized in a bare one hundred pages.? Usually these summaries have a certain ?potted? quality to them, but Vijg?s point is to understand an important issue: why successful societies seem to have sunk into stagnation after periods of technological flourishing.? His examples are, not surprisingly, the Roman Empire, Song China, Medieval Islam, and our own industrialized world, the offspring of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century.? In all of them, he observes, a successful period of technological progress was followed by a slowing-down and eventually a collapse.? He observes quite astutely that such a collapse was not inevitable but brought about by foreign invasions of barbarian invaders specializing in violence and mayhem.[1] Given that such an invasion in our own time is unlikely, Vijg feels we will basically coast along, gradually improving on the margins but without setting foot on Mars or doubling life expectancy again.

The culprit of this stagnation, in his view, is decidedly not that human minds are running out of ideas, or that everything important that could be invented already has been invented, or that the ?low-hanging fruits in technology have all been picked? as my Northwestern colleague Robert J. Gordon puts it.[2]? Indeed, the technology we are developing is much like ever-taller ladders that allow us to get to ever higher-hanging fruits.[3]? Instead, Vijg points to what we would call today institutional failure.? We are the victims of our success: wealthy and sated (Vijg does not use words like ?lazy? or ?complacent,? but clearly they are in the back of his mind), we become more risk-averse, more concerned about possible losses, and we feel increasingly reluctant to venture into the unknown and the possibly risky.[4]? Medical advances are severely slowed-down and even blocked if the most minute percentage of users are negatively affected, and Vijg is eloquent and convincing in his just indignation at ?irrational? resistance to many potential sources of macroinventions such as genetically modified organisms, human cloning, and third-generation nuclear energy such as pebble-bed reactors, which are essentially disaster-proof.? Regulation and political control, he feels, are the result of such sentiments and they are getting in the way of more progress.?

What is the economic historian to make of this analysis? The idea that ?conservative? institutions may get in the way of innovation can be traced down to Schumpeter?s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy and has been the subject of a small but important literature in an area we may call the political economy of technological change (for a summary, see my Gifts of Athena, chapter 6). While we use the term ?technological progress? in our historical analysis, implying a clear-cut non-stationarity in the evolution of useful knowledge, we do not admit ?progress? in our institutional stories.? There may have been improvement, but it is less secure and less obvious.? Vijg is quite right in that he sees institutions as a threat to continued technological advance.? It is quite possible that a mixture of vested interests in incumbent techniques, and ?irrational? fears of what unknowable disasters innovations may inflict upon our comfortable and secure existence could throttle progress.

Yet two caveats are in order.? First, it is far from clear that in fact technology is slowing down.? Vijg relies heavily on a database of his own creation, 337 macroinventions made between 10,000 BC and 2006.? Such attempts to count the uncountable are common, but in the end run into the irrefutable complaint that inventions simply do not obey the laws of arithmetic because of complex complementarities and substitution effects.? More immediately, his diagnosis that we find ourselves in the midst of a technological slow-down is far from a consensus (as he knows all too well).[5]? Take for instance his argument that transportation has barely improved in the past half century.? Cars are not markedly different in outward appearance, and not moving noticeably faster; airplanes do not fly any faster either and are more cramped than ever.? On the surface, this argument is correct, but at closer examination some doubts creep in: cars today are far better-made, more durable, comfortable and safe than in 1965; drivers have access to hands-free costless communication with almost anywhere on the planet, can listen to a bewildering choice of high-definition music and information, and will never need to shuffle annoying paper maps or worry about getting lost.? Traffic jams are still annoying and costly, but modern technology can resolve it through pricing that will charge peak-hour driving a higher marginal cost (if the political problems of doing so can be resolved).? Airplanes are a different matter.[6]? But even here the effect of technology has been enormous, by reducing the real price of travel and thus making it available to almost everyone in the developed world ? leading of course to the congestion and queues Vijg dislikes.[7]? It is also no more than fair to point out that, before he dismisses the impact of innovation on transportation, Vijg might have benefited from reading Vaclav Smil?s Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines (2010), which describes in magisterial detail the impact of technology on transport costs and the world we live in.?

What Vijg must also realize is that if he is right that further innovation may not make transportation all that much more efficient (or even cheap), it may make much of it redundant, through increasingly more effective and inexpensive person-to-person communication, in professional meetings and conferences as well as family gatherings can be conducted electronically and much work can be carried out from one?s living room.? If telecommuting and teleconferencing have not taken off quite as rapidly as many were hoping a decade ago, it is because for some reason most of us prefer it this way.? But the technology is basically here and still getting better by the day.? If the full price of transportation were to rise steeply all of a sudden due to a 9-11 type of event, this substitute for transportation would surely witness a rapid expansion.? Similar developments are evolving as these lines are being written, especially three-dimensional printing, which has the potential to alter manufacturing more than any invention since the Industrial Revolution, by providing mass-customization in ways and at prices that are totally unprecedented.? In services, the effects of pattern- and speech-recognizing software are only beginning to be felt.?

The second point is that technology, much like evolution in living species, often moves in leaps and bounds, punctuating extended periods of seeming stagnation.? Part of the reason is that at times technology comes up with a new idea that affects many other techniques and thus causes a widespread innovative wave.? Such techniques have been called General Practice Techniques and account to some extent for the intensity of first Industrial Revolution, but even more so for that of the second Industrial Revolution between 1870 and 1914.[8]? Historically such interactions can explain a great deal of the irregular and discrete behavior of technology.? At times, however, a dominant design is so effective that little change should be expected.? Who would complain that the forks we eat with or the buttons and zippers we use for our clothing have not changed in many years? Moreover, when a new technique is still in development, it is hard to fully see its full impact.? Would someone in 1760 England not have felt that for all their noise and bombast, steam engines had to date done little more than pump a bit of water out of coal mines?
Finally, we should keep in mind that innovation is often needed to fix the unexpected side-effects of earlier technological progress, such as catalytic converters and asbestos removal.? Whether such a technique can emerge to cope with the ?mother of all side-effects? ? climate change ? remains to be seen.? But Vijg is right: the problem is not technological, it is institutional.? Solving the ?global commons? threats, and much of our technological future, depend on politics, not knowledge.


1. A more detailed and elaborate statement in the direction can be found in Ian Morris, Why the West Rules ? For Now, 2010.?

2.? Robert J. Gordon, ?Is U.S.? Economic Growth over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds?.?? NBER Working Paper 18315 (Aug. 2012).? The term does not appear in that essay, but can be found for instance in ?The Innovation Equation,? World Finance, March 2013, An earlier use of the term was proposed by Tyler Cowen.
3. I made this argument in some detail in my The Gifts of Athena (2002), in which I argue that what counts for technological development is socially useful knowledge which can be defined as the union of all sets of knowledge possessed by members of society.? Since the division of knowledge can be made finer and finer, what really matters is the access that agents have to the knowledge that is in the possession of specialists.? This access is what has become increasingly easy and cheap due to the IT revolution, and hence ? on this account ? we might well expect technological progress to keep growing at a rate that is at least as fast as in the past and possibly a lot faster.?

4. Vijg himself is anything but risk-averse, and boldly (if controversially) postulates (p. 108) that part of the higher risk aversion of modern society could be due to the larger influence of women and older voters on political outcomes, since he feels that these groups are more risk averse than young males.

5. See for example ?Has the Ideas Machine Broken Down,? The Economist, Jan. 12, 2013.

6. GPS technology ? astoundingly ? has not yet been introduced into commercial aircrafts, and a bill to fund the FAA?s plan to introduce it has a target date of 2020, by which time the technology may well be outdated.?

7. Vijg should recognize that goods and services come in two variants, following Fred Hirsch?s classic distinction between ?material? and ?positional? goods.? The former are amenable to technological progress because they are what we think of as goods subject to standard production function relations.? Positional goods are by definition zero-
sum: access to uncrowded museums, front-row tickets to opera performances, fast-track driving on highways, and VIP treatment at airports.? As income goes up, the gap between progress in material goods and the lack thereof in positional goods becomes more noticeable and perhaps more irritating.?

8. For an introduction to GPT?s see Elhanan Helpman, ed., General Purpose Technologies and Economic Growth (1998) and Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, and Clifford T. Bekar, Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-term Economic Growth (2005).

Joel Mokyr is the author of The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 (Yale University Press, 2009).

Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net.? All rights reserved.? This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list.? For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (April 2013).? All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII